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What is TensorFlow, and how are businesses using it?

Scott Carey | May 2, 2017
Open source deep learning technology is proving popular with businesses.


Google caused a stir when it open sourced its TensorFlow software back in November 2015, and the technology is starting to make its way into the mainstream.

The machine learning software library is the next generation of DistBelief, which was internally developed by the Google Brain team at the search giant for a multitude of tasks such as image search and improving its speech recognition algorithms.

TensorFlow is a deep neural network, so it learns to perform a task through positive reinforcement and works through layers of data (nodes) to help it determine the correct outcome.

By open sourcing the TensorFlow library of machine learning code, Google is facilitating the simpler construction, training and deployment of complex deep neural nets. TensorFlow doesn't exactly give every developer the ability to harness machine learning but it does provide both a Python and C/C++ API to link into a developer's program.

This sort of machine learning work used to be exclusively in the realm of research, but with the open sourcing of software like TensorFlow the enterprise is increasingly able to utilise its powerful capabilities on their own data, operating it on cheap cloud computing.

The TensorFlow libraries make it far easier to incorporate self-learning elements and AI features like speech recognition, computer vision or natural language processing into applications.

TensorFlow certainly isn't the only deep learning library out there, but just as there are other search engines besides Google, it is widely regarded as the best out there. As alternatives go there is Torch, built by Swiss researchers, and Caffe, which came out of The University of California Berkley and has been built on by Facebook for its recent release of Caffe2.

In terms of limitations Google still only allows TensorFlow to be deployed on a single machine, granted with multiple GPUs, which can limit the scale businesses can use the tool. There are naturally workarounds for this, but they require expertise, time and money.


TensorFlow case study: Ocado

According to the TensorFlow website some of the biggest companies in the world are using the software library, such as Airbnb, Airbus, Dropbox, Snapchat and Uber (although they might not be using it in the most appropriate way).

However, finding actual case studies can be an uphill battle. One company that isn't shy about its use of TensorFlow is UK online supermarket Ocado.

The data science team there is using the libraries for everything from routing algorithms for its robots to move around warehouses, to improving its existing features like demand forecasting, which is currently based on decade-old linear regression models, and predictively suggesting items to add to your basket depending on past shopping habits.


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