How to Reduce Risk and Uncertainty in AI Projects

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3 min read
Iteration process chart

Dear friends,

When I wrote recently about how to build a career in AI, several readers wrote to ask specifically about AI product management: the art and science of designing compelling AI products. I’ll share lessons I’ve learned about this here and in future letters.

A key concept in building AI products is iteration. As I’ve explained in past letters, developing a machine learning system is a highly iterative process. First you build something, then run experiments to see how it performs, then analyze the results, which enables you to build a better version based on what you’ve learned. You may go through this loop several times in various phases of development — collecting data, training a model, deploying the system — before you have a finished product.

Why is development of machine learning systems so iterative? Because (i) when starting on a project, you almost never know what strange and wonderful things you’ll find in the data, and discoveries along the way will help you to make better decisions on how to improve the model; and (ii) it’s relatively quick and inexpensive to try out different models.

Not all projects are iterative. For example, if you’re preparing a medical drug for approval by the U.S. government — an expensive process that can cost tens of millions of dollars and take years — you’d usually want to get the drug formulation and experimental design right the first time, since repeating the process to correct a mistake would be costly in time and money. Or if you’re building a space telescope (such as the wonderful Webb Space Telescope) that’s intended to operate far from Earth with little hope of repair if something goes wrong, you’d think through every detail carefully before you hit the launch button on your rocket.

Iteration process chart

Iterating on projects tends to be beneficial when (i) you face uncertainty or risk, and building or launching something can provide valuable feedback that helps you reduce the uncertainty or risk, and (ii) the cost of each attempt is modest.

This is why The Lean Startup, a book that has significantly influenced my thinking, advocates building a minimum viable product (MVP) and launching it quickly. Developing software products often involves uncertainty about how users will react, which creates risk for the success of the product. Making a quick-and-dirty, low-cost implementation helps you to get valuable user feedback before you’ve invested too much in building features that users don’t want. An MVP lets you resolve questions about what users want quickly and inexpensively, so you can make decisions and investments with greater confidence.

When building AI products, I often see two major sources of uncertainty, which in turn creates risk:

  • Users. The considerations here are similar to those that apply to building software products. Will they like it? Are the features you’re prioritizing the ones they’ll find most valuable? Is the user interface confusing?
  • Data. Does your dataset have enough examples of each class? Which classes are hardest to detect? What is human-level performance on the task, and what level of AI performance is reasonable to expect?

A quick MVP or proof of concept, built at low cost, helps to reduce uncertainty about users and/or data. This enables you to uncover and address hidden issues that may hinder your success.

Many product managers are used to thinking through user uncertainty and using iteration to manage risk in that dimension. AI product managers should also consider the data uncertainty and decide on the appropriate pace and nature of iteration to enable the development team to learn the needed lessons about the data and, given the data, what level of AI functionality and performance is possible.

Keep learning!



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