When Not to Use Machine Learning

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Alert door widget

Dear friends,

I decided last weekend not to use a learning algorithm. Sometimes, a non-machine learning method works best.

Now that my daughter is a little over two years old and highly mobile, I want to make sure the baby gate that keeps her away from the stairs is always shut. It’s easy to forget and leave it open when walking through. How do you do this?

I started designing a system where I’d collect images of the gate both open and shut, and train a neural network to distinguish between the two. Then I would use TensorRT to deploy the model on a Raspberry Pi computer, which would beep if the gate were left open for more than 60 seconds.

I got as far as wiring up the system. Then I found a refrigerator-door alert widget that does the same job by sensing when a magnet is separated from a detector.

It goes to show that sometimes you don’t need a big neural network to do the job. (But when you do need one, it’s handy.) That’s why it’s nice to have a portfolio of techniques. Then we can better pick the right one for a given job.

Perhaps one lesson here is to pick the right sensor: To do the job with a camera, I needed a computer vision algorithm. But with a magnetic sensor, making the decision to beep when the gate is left open becomes trivial.

Keep learning!



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