A crossword puzzle with a big purpose

A crossword puzzle with a big purpose

Before the pandemic, Alicia Chang was working on a new project. “I was experimenting with non-traditional ways to help teach Googlers the AI Principles,” she says. Alicia is a technical writer on the Engineering Education team focused on designing learning experiences to help Googlers learn about our AI Principles and how to apply them in their own work.

The challenge for Alicia would be how many people she needed to educate. “There are so many people spread over different locations, time zones, countries!” But when the world started working from home, she was inspired by the various workarounds people were using to connect virtually. 

A photo of Alicia Chang sitting on a bench outside. She is looking into the camera and smiling.

Alicia Chang

“I started testing out activities like haiku-writing contests and online trivia,” Alicia says. “Then one day a friend mentioned an online escape room activity someone had arranged for a COVID-safe birthday gathering. Something really clicked with me when she mentioned that, and I started to think about designing an immersive learning experience.” Alicia decided to research how some of the most creative, dedicated people deliver information: She looked at what teachers were doing. 

Alicia soon stumbled upon a YouTube video about using Google Sheets to create a crossword puzzle, so she decided to make her own — and Googlers loved it. Since the crossword was such a success, Alicia decided to make more interactive games. She used Google Forms to create a fun “Which AI Principle are you?” quiz, and Google Docs to make a word search. Then there’s the Emoji Challenge, where players have to figure out which AI Principles a set of emoji describe. All of this became part of what is now known as the Responsible Innovation Challenge, a set of various puzzle activities built with Google products — including Forms, Sheets, Docs and Sites — that focus on teaching Google’s AI Principles.

The purpose of the Responsible Innovation Challenge is to introduce Google’s AI Principles to new technical hires in onboarding courses, and to help Googlers put the AI Principles into practice in everyday product development situations. The first few puzzles are fairly simple and help players remember and recall the Principles, which serve as a practical framework for responsible innovation. As Googlers start leveling up, the puzzles get a bit more complex.. There’s even a bonus level where Googlers are asked to think about various technical resources and tools they can use to develop AI responsibly by applying them in their existing workflow when creating a machine learning model.

Alicia added a points system and a leaderboard with digital badges — and even included prizes. “I noticed that people were motivated by some friendly competition. Googlers really got involved and referred their coworkers to play, too,” she says. “We had over 1,000 enroll in the first 30 days alone!” To date, more than 2,800 Googlers have participated from across 41 countries, and people continue to sign up. 

It’s been encouraging for Alicia to see how much Googlers are enjoying the puzzles, especially when screen time burnout is all too real. Most importantly, though, she’s thrilled that more people are learning about Google’s AI Principles. “Each of the billions of people who use Google products has a unique story and life experience,” Alicia says. “And that’s what we want to think about so we can make the best products for individual people.” 

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SoundStream: An End-to-End Neural Audio Codec

SoundStream: An End-to-End Neural Audio Codec

Posted by Neil Zeghidour, Research Scientist and Marco Tagliasacchi, Staff Research Scientist, Google Research

Audio codecs are used to efficiently compress audio to reduce either storage requirements or network bandwidth. Ideally, audio codecs should be transparent to the end user, so that the decoded audio is perceptually indistinguishable from the original and the encoding/decoding process does not introduce perceivable latency.

Over the past few years, different audio codecs have been successfully developed to meet these requirements, including Opus and Enhanced Voice Services (EVS). Opus is a versatile speech and audio codec, supporting bitrates from 6 kbps (kilobits per second) to 510 kbps, which has been widely deployed across applications ranging from video conferencing platforms, like Google Meet, to streaming services, like YouTube. EVS is the latest codec developed by the 3GPP standardization body targeting mobile telephony. Like Opus, it is a versatile codec operating at multiple bitrates, 5.9 kbps to 128 kbps. The quality of the reconstructed audio using either of these codecs is excellent at medium-to-low bitrates (12–20 kbps), but it degrades sharply when operating at very low bitrates (⪅3 kbps). While these codecs leverage expert knowledge of human perception as well as carefully engineered signal processing pipelines to maximize the efficiency of the compression algorithms, there has been recent interest in replacing these handcrafted pipelines by machine learning approaches that learn to encode audio in a data-driven manner.

Earlier this year, we released Lyra, a neural audio codec for low-bitrate speech. In “SoundStream: an End-to-End Neural Audio Codec”, we introduce a novel neural audio codec that extends those efforts by providing higher-quality audio and expanding to encode different sound types, including clean speech, noisy and reverberant speech, music, and environmental sounds. SoundStream is the first neural network codec to work on speech and music, while being able to run in real-time on a smartphone CPU. It is able to deliver state-of-the-art quality over a broad range of bitrates with a single trained model, which represents a significant advance in learnable codecs.

Learning an Audio Codec from Data
The main technical ingredient of SoundStream is a neural network, consisting of an encoder, decoder and quantizer, all of which are trained end-to-end. The encoder converts the input audio stream into a coded signal, which is compressed using the quantizer and then converted back to audio using the decoder. SoundStream leverages state-of-the-art solutions in the field of neural audio synthesis to deliver audio at high perceptual quality, by training a discriminator that computes a combination of adversarial and reconstruction loss functions that induce the reconstructed audio to sound like the uncompressed original input. Once trained, the encoder and decoder can be run on separate clients to efficiently transmit high-quality audio over a network.

SoundStream training and inference. During training, the encoder, quantizer and decoder parameters are optimized using a combination of reconstruction and adversarial losses, computed by a discriminator, which is trained to distinguish between the original input audio and the reconstructed audio. During inference, the encoder and quantizer on a transmitter client send the compressed bitstream to a receiver client that can then decode the audio signal.

Learning a Scalable Codec with Residual Vector Quantization
The encoder of SoundStream produces vectors that can take an indefinite number of values. In order to transmit them to the receiver using a limited number of bits, it is necessary to replace them by close vectors from a finite set (called a codebook), a process known as vector quantization. This approach works well at bitrates around 1 kbps or lower, but quickly reaches its limits when using higher bitrates. For example, even at a bitrate as low as 3 kbps, and assuming the encoder produces 100 vectors per second, one would need to store a codebook with more than 1 billion vectors, which is infeasible in practice.

In SoundStream, we address this issue by proposing a new residual vector quantizer (RVQ), consisting of several layers (up to 80 in our experiments). The first layer quantizes the code vectors with moderate resolution, and each of the following layers processes the residual error from the previous one. By splitting the quantization process in several layers, the codebook size can be reduced drastically. As an example, with 100 vectors per second at 3 kbps, and using 5 quantizer layers, the codebook size goes from 1 billion to 320. Moreover, we can easily increase or decrease the bitrate by adding or removing quantizer layers, respectively.

Because network conditions can vary while transmitting audio, ideally a codec should be “scalable” so that it can change its bitrate from low to high depending on the state of the network. While most traditional codecs are scalable, previous learnable codecs need to be trained and deployed specifically for each bitrate.

To circumvent this limitation, we leverage the fact that the number of quantization layers in SoundStream controls the bitrate, and propose a new method called “quantizer dropout”. During training, we randomly drop some quantization layers to simulate a varying bitrate. This pushes the decoder to perform well at any bitrate of the incoming audio stream, and thus helps SoundStream to become “scalable” so that a single trained model can operate at any bitrate, performing as well as models trained specifically for these bitrates.

Comparison of SoundStream models (higher is better) that are trained at 18 kbps with quantizer dropout (bitrate scalable), without quantizer dropout (not bitrate scalable) and evaluated with a variable number of quantizers, or trained and evaluated at a fixed bitrate (bitrate specific). The bitrate-scalable model (a single model for all bitrates) does not lose any quality when compared to bitrate-specific models (a different model for each bitrate), thanks to quantizer dropout.

A State-of-the-Art Audio Codec
SoundStream at 3 kbps outperforms Opus at 12 kbps and approaches the quality of EVS at 9.6 kbps, while using 3.2x–4x fewer bits. This means that encoding audio with SoundStream can provide a similar quality while using a significantly lower amount of bandwidth. Moreover, at the same bitrate, SoundStream outperforms the current version of Lyra, which is based on an autoregressive network. Unlike Lyra, which is already deployed and optimized for production usage, SoundStream is still at an experimental stage. In the future, Lyra will incorporate the components of SoundStream to provide both higher audio quality and reduced complexity.

SoundStream at 3kbps vs. state-of-the-art codecs. MUSHRA score is an indication of subjective quality (the higher the better).

The demonstration of SoundStream’s performance compared to Opus, EVS, and the original Lyra codec is presented in these audio examples, a selection of which are provided below.


Lyra (3kbps)
Opus (6kbps)
EVS (5.9kbps)
SoundStream (3kbps)  


Lyra (3kbps)
Opus (6kbps)
EVS (5.9kbps)
SoundStream (3kbps)  

Joint Audio Compression and Enhancement
In traditional audio processing pipelines, compression and enhancement (the removal of background noise) are typically performed by different modules. For example, it is possible to apply an audio enhancement algorithm at the transmitter side, before audio is compressed, or at the receiver side, after audio is decoded. In such a setup, each processing step contributes to the end-to-end latency. Conversely, we design SoundStream in such a way that compression and enhancement can be carried out jointly by the same model, without increasing the overall latency. In the following examples, we show that it is possible to combine compression with background noise suppression, by activating and deactivating denoising dynamically (no denoising for 5 seconds, denoising for 5 seconds, no denoising for 5 seconds, etc.).

Original noisy audio  
Denoised output*
* Demonstrated by turning denoising on and off every 5 seconds.

Efficient compression is necessary whenever one needs to transmit audio, whether when streaming a video, or during a conference call. SoundStream is an important step towards improving machine learning-driven audio codecs. It outperforms state-of-the-art codecs, such as Opus and EVS, can enhance audio on demand, and requires deployment of only a single scalable model, rather than many.

SoundStream will be released as a part of the next, improved version of Lyra. By integrating SoundStream with Lyra, developers can leverage the existing Lyra APIs and tools for their work, providing both flexibility and better sound quality. We will also release it as a separate TensorFlow model for experimentation.

AcknowledgmentsThe work described here was authored by Neil Zeghidour, Alejandro Luebs, Ahmed Omran, Jan Skoglund and Marco Tagliasacchi. We are grateful for all discussions and feedback on this work that we received from our colleagues at Google.

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Demonstrating the Fundamentals of Quantum Error Correction

Demonstrating the Fundamentals of Quantum Error Correction

Posted by Jimmy Chen, Quantum Research Scientist and Matt McEwen, Student Researcher, Google Quantum AI

The Google Quantum AI team has been building quantum processors made of superconducting quantum bits (qubits) that have achieved the first beyond-classical computation, as well as the largest quantum chemical simulations to date. However, current generation quantum processors still have high operational error rates — in the range of 10-3 per operation, compared to the 10-12 believed to be necessary for a variety of useful algorithms. Bridging this tremendous gap in error rates will require more than just making better qubits — quantum computers of the future will have to use quantum error correction (QEC).

The core idea of QEC is to make a logical qubit by distributing its quantum state across many physical data qubits. When a physical error occurs, one can detect it by repeatedly checking certain properties of the qubits, allowing it to be corrected, preventing any error from occurring on the logical qubit state. While logical errors may still occur if a series of physical qubits experience an error together, this error rate should exponentially decrease with the addition of more physical qubits (more physical qubits need to be involved to cause a logical error). This exponential scaling behavior relies on physical qubit errors being sufficiently rare and independent. In particular, it’s important to suppress correlated errors, where one physical error simultaneously affects many qubits at once or persists over many cycles of error correction. Such correlated errors produce more complex patterns of error detections that are more difficult to correct and more easily cause logical errors.

Our team has recently implemented the ideas of QEC in our Sycamore architecture using quantum repetition codes. These codes consist of one-dimensional chains of qubits that alternate between data qubits, which encode the logical qubit, and measure qubits, which we use to detect errors in the logical state. While these repetition codes can only correct for one kind of quantum error at a time1, they contain all of the same ingredients as more sophisticated error correction codes and require fewer physical qubits per logical qubit, allowing us to better explore how logical errors decrease as logical qubit size grows.

In “Removing leakage-induced correlated errors in superconducting quantum error correction”, published in Nature Communications, we use these repetition codes to demonstrate a new technique for reducing the amount of correlated errors in our physical qubits. Then, in “Exponential suppression of bit or phase flip errors with repetitive error correction”, published in Nature, we show that the logical errors of these repetition codes are exponentially suppressed as we add more and more physical qubits, consistent with expectations from QEC theory.

Layout of the repetition code (21 qubits, 1D chain) and distance-2 surface code (7 qubits) on the Sycamore device.

Leaky Qubits
The goal of the repetition code is to detect errors on the data qubits without measuring their states directly. It does so by entangling each pair of data qubits with their shared measure qubit in a way that tells us whether those data qubit states are the same or different (i.e., their parity) without telling us the states themselves. We repeat this process over and over in rounds that last only one microsecond. When the measured parities change between rounds, we’ve detected an error.

However, one key challenge stems from how we make qubits out of superconducting circuits. While a qubit needs only two energy states, which are usually labeled |0 and |1, our devices feature a ladder of energy states, |0, |1, |2, |3, and so on. We use the two lowest energy states to encode our qubit with information to be used for computation (we call these the computational states). We use the higher energy states (|2, |3 and higher) to help achieve high-fidelity entangling operations, but these entangling operations can sometimes allow the qubit to “leak” into these higher states, earning them the name leakage states.

Population in the leakage states builds up as operations are applied, which increases the error of subsequent operations and even causes other nearby qubits to leak as well — resulting in a particularly challenging source of correlated error. In our early 2015 experiments on error correction, we observed that as more rounds of error correction were applied, performance declined as leakage began to build.

Mitigating the impact of leakage required us to develop a new kind of qubit operation that could “empty out” leakage states, called multi-level reset. We manipulate the qubit to rapidly pump energy out into the structures used for readout, where it will quickly move off the chip, leaving the qubit cooled to the |0 state, even if it started in |2 or |3. Applying this operation to the data qubits would destroy the logical state we’re trying to protect, but we can apply it to the measure qubits without disturbing the data qubits. Resetting the measure qubits at the end of every round dynamically stabilizes the device so leakage doesn’t continue to grow and spread, allowing our devices to behave more like ideal qubits.

Applying the multi-level reset gate to the measure qubits almost totally removes leakage, while also reducing the growth of leakage on the data qubits.

Exponential Suppression
Having mitigated leakage as a significant source of correlated error, we next set out to test whether the repetition codes give us the predicted exponential reduction in error when increasing the number of qubits. Every time we run our repetition code, it produces a collection of error detections. Because the detections are linked to pairs of qubits rather than individual qubits, we have to look at all of the detections to try to piece together where the errors have occurred, a procedure known as decoding. Once we’ve decoded the errors, we then know which corrections we need to apply to the data qubits. However, decoding can fail if there are too many error detections for the number of data qubits used, resulting in a logical error.

To test our repetition codes, we run codes with sizes ranging from 5 to 21 qubits while also varying the number of error correction rounds. We also run two different types of repetition codes — either a phase-flip code or bit-flip code — that are sensitive to different kinds of quantum errors. By finding the logical error probability as a function of the number of rounds, we can fit a logical error rate for each code size and code type. In our data, we see that the logical error rate does in fact get suppressed exponentially as the code size is increased.

Probability of getting a logical error after decoding versus number of rounds run, shown for various sizes of phase-flip repetition code.

We can quantify the error suppression with the error scaling parameter Lambda (Λ), where a Lambda value of 2 means that we halve the logical error rate every time we add four data qubits to the repetition code. In our experiments, we find Lambda values of 3.18 for the phase-flip code and 2.99 for the bit-flip code. We can compare these experimental values to a numerical simulation of the expected Lambda based on a simple error model with no correlated errors, which predicts values of 3.34 and 3.78 for the bit- and phase-flip codes respectively.

Logical error rate per round versus number of qubits for the phase-flip (X) and bit-flip (Z) repetition codes. The line shows an exponential decay fit, and Λ is the scale factor for the exponential decay.

This is the first time Lambda has been measured in any platform while performing multiple rounds of error detection. We’re especially excited about how close the experimental and simulated Lambda values are, because it means that our system can be described with a fairly simple error model without many unexpected errors occurring. Nevertheless, the agreement is not perfect, indicating that there’s more research to be done in understanding the non-idealities of our QEC architecture, including additional sources of correlated errors.

What’s Next
This work demonstrates two important prerequisites for QEC: first, the Sycamore device can run many rounds of error correction without building up errors over time thanks to our new reset protocol, and second, we were able to validate QEC theory and error models by showing exponential suppression of error in a repetition code. These experiments were the largest stress test of a QEC system yet, using 1000 entangling gates and 500 qubit measurements in our largest test. We’re looking forward to taking what we learned from these experiments and applying it to our target QEC architecture, the 2D surface code, which will require even more qubits with even better performance.

1A true quantum error correcting code would require a two dimensional array of qubits in order to correct for all of the errors that could occur. 

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The C4_200M Synthetic Dataset for Grammatical Error Correction

The C4_200M Synthetic Dataset for Grammatical Error Correction

Posted by Felix Stahlberg and Shankar Kumar, Research Scientists, Google Research

Grammatical error correction (GEC) attempts to model grammar and other types of writing errors in order to provide grammar and spelling suggestions, improving the quality of written output in documents, emails, blog posts and even informal chats. Over the past 15 years, there has been a substantial improvement in GEC quality, which can in large part be credited to recasting the problem as a “translation” task. When introduced in Google Docs, for example, this approach resulted in a significant increase in the number of accepted grammar correction suggestions.

One of the biggest challenges for GEC models, however, is data sparsity. Unlike other natural language processing (NLP) tasks, such as speech recognition and machine translation, there is very limited training data available for GEC, even for high-resource languages like English. A common remedy for this is to generate synthetic data using a range of techniques, from heuristic-based random word- or character-level corruptions to model-based approaches. However, such methods tend to be simplistic and do not reflect the true distribution of error types from actual users.

In “Synthetic Data Generation for Grammatical Error Correction with Tagged Corruption Models”, presented at the EACL 16th Workshop on Innovative Use of NLP for Building Educational Applications, we introduce tagged corruption models. Inspired by the popular back-translation data synthesis technique for machine translation, this approach enables the precise control of synthetic data generation, ensuring diverse outputs that are more consistent with the distribution of errors seen in practice. We used tagged corruption models to generate a new 200M sentence dataset, which we have released in order to provide researchers with realistic pre-training data for GEC. By integrating this new dataset into our training pipeline, we were able to significantly improve on GEC baselines.

Tagged Corruption Models
The idea behind applying a conventional corruption model to GEC is to begin with a grammatically correct sentence and then to “corrupt” it by adding errors. A corruption model can be easily trained by switching the source and target sentences in existing GEC datasets, a method that previous studies have shown that can be very effective for generating improved GEC datasets.

A conventional corruption model generates an ungrammatical sentence (red) given a clean input sentence (green).

The tagged corruption model that we propose builds on this idea by taking a clean sentence as input along with an error type tag that describes the kind of error one wishes to reproduce. It then generates an ungrammatical version of the input sentence that contains the given error type. Choosing different error types for different sentences increases the diversity of corruptions compared to a conventional corruption model.

Tagged corruption models generate corruptions (red) for the clean input sentence (green) depending on the error type tag. A determiner error may lead to dropping the “a”, whereas a noun-inflection error may produce the incorrect plural “sheeps”.

To use this model for data generation we first randomly selected 200M clean sentences from the C4 corpus, and assigned an error type tag to each sentence such that their relative frequencies matched the error type tag distribution of the small development set BEA-dev. Since BEA-dev is a carefully curated set that covers a wide range of different English proficiency levels, we expect its tag distribution to be representative for writing errors found in the wild. We then used a tagged corruption model to synthesize the source sentence.

Synthetic data generation with tagged corruption models. The clean C4 sentences (green) are paired with the corrupted sentences (red) in the synthetic GEC training corpus. The corrupted sentences are generated using a tagged corruption model by following the error type frequencies in the development set (bar chart).

In our experiments, tagged corruption models outperformed untagged corruption models on two standard development sets (CoNLL-13 and BEA-dev) by more than three F0.5-points (a standard metric in GEC research that combines precision and recall with more weight on precision), advancing the state-of-the-art on the two widely used academic test sets, CoNLL-14 and BEA-test.

In addition, the use of tagged corruption models not only yields gains on standard GEC test sets, it is also able to adapt GEC systems to the proficiency levels of users. This could be useful, for example, because the error tag distribution for native English writers often differs significantly from the distributions for non-native English speakers. For example, native speakers tend to make more punctuation and spelling mistakes, whereas determiner errors (e.g., missing or superfluous articles, like “a”, “an” or “the”) are more common in text from non-native writers.

Neural sequence models are notoriously data-hungry, but the availability of annotated training data for grammatical error correction is rare. Our new C4_200M corpus is a synthetic dataset containing diverse grammatical errors, which yields state-of-the-art performance when used to pre-train GEC systems. By releasing the dataset we hope to provide GEC researchers with a valuable resource to train strong baseline systems.

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A Dataset Exploration Case Study with Know Your Data

A Dataset Exploration Case Study with Know Your Data

Posted by Mark Díaz and Emily Denton, Research Scientists, Google Research, Ethical AI Team

Data underlies much of machine learning (ML) research and development, helping to structure what a machine learning algorithm learns and how models are evaluated and benchmarked. However, data collection and labeling can be complicated by unconscious biases, data access limitations and privacy concerns, among other challenges. As a result, machine learning datasets can reflect unfair social biases along dimensions of race, gender, age, and more.

Methods of examining datasets that can surface information about how different social groups are represented within are a key component of ensuring development of ML models and datasets is aligned with our AI Principles. Such methods can inform the responsible use of ML datasets and point toward potential mitigations of unfair outcomes. For example, prior research has demonstrated that some object recognition datasets are biased toward images sourced from North America and Western Europe, prompting Google’s Crowdsource effort to balance out image representations in other parts of the world.

Today, we demonstrate some of the functionality of a dataset exploration tool, Know Your Data (KYD), recently introduced at Google I/O, using the COCO Captions dataset as a case study. Using this tool, we find a range of gender and age biases in COCO Captions — biases that can be traced to both dataset collection and annotation practices. KYD is a dataset analysis tool that complements the growing suite of responsible AI tools being developed across Google and the broader research community. Currently, KYD only supports analysis of a small set of image datasets, but we’re working hard to make the tool accessible beyond this set.

Introducing Know Your Data
Know Your Data helps ML research, product and compliance teams understand datasets, with the goal of improving data quality, and thus helping to mitigate fairness and bias issues. KYD offers a range of features that allow users to explore and examine machine learning datasets — users can filter, group, and study correlations based on annotations already present in a given dataset. KYD also presents automatically computed labels from Google’s Cloud Vision API, providing users with a simple way to explore their data based on signals that weren’t originally present in the dataset.

A KYD Case Study
As a case study, we explore some of these features using the COCO Captions dataset, an image dataset that contains five human-generated captions for each of over 300k images. Given the rich annotations provided by free-form text, we focus our analysis on signals already present within the dataset.

Exploring Gender Bias
Previous research has demonstrated undesirable gender biases within computer vision datasets, including pornographic imagery of women and image label correlations that align with harmful gender stereotypes. We use KYD to explore gender biases within COCO Captions by examining gendered correlations within the image captions. We find a gender bias in the depiction of different activities across the images in the dataset, as well as biases relating to how people of different genders are described by annotators.

The first part of our analysis aimed to surface gender biases with respect to different activities depicted in the dataset. We examined images captioned with words describing different activities and analyzed their relation to gendered caption words, such as “man” or “woman”. The KYD Relations tab makes it easy to examine the relation between two different signals in a dataset by visualizing the extent to which two signals co-occur more (or less) than would be expected by chance. Each cell indicates either a positive (blue color) or negative (orange color) correlation between two specific signal values along with the strength of that correlation.

KYD also allows users to filter rows of a relations table based on substring matching. Using this functionality, we initially probed for caption words containing “-ing”, as a simple way to filter by verbs. We immediately saw strong gendered correlations:

Using KYD to analyze the relationship between any word and gendered words. Each cell shows if the two respective words co-occur in the same caption more (up arrow) or less often (down arrow) than pure chance.

Digging further into these correlations, we found that several activities stereotypically associated with women, such as “shopping” and “cooking”, co-occur with images captioned with “women” or “woman” at a higher rate than with images captioned with “men” or “man”. In contrast captions describing many physically intensive activities, such as “skateboarding”, “surfing”, and “snowboarding”, co-occur with images captioned with “man” or “men” at higher rates.

While individual image captions may not use stereotypical or derogatory language, such as with the example below, if certain gender groups are over (or under) represented within a particular activity across the whole dataset, models developed from the dataset risk learning stereotypical associations. KYD makes it easy to surface, quantify, and make plans to mitigate this risk.

An image with one of the captions: “Two women cooking in a beige and white kitchen.” Image licensed under CC-BY 2.0.

In addition to examining biases with respect to the social groups depicted with different activities, we also explored biases in how annotators described the appearance of people they perceived as male or female. Inspired by media scholars who have examined the “male gaze” embedded in other forms of visual media, we examined the frequency with which individuals perceived as women in COCO are described using adjectives that position them as an object of desire. KYD allowed us to easily examine co-occurrences between words associated with binary gender (e.g. “female/girl/woman” vs. “male/man/boy”) and words associated with evaluating physical attractiveness. Importantly, these are captions written by human annotators, who are making subjective assessments about the gender of people in the image and choosing a descriptor for attractiveness. We see that the words “attractive”, “beautiful”, “pretty”, and “sexy” are overrepresented in describing people perceived as women as compared to those perceived as men, confirming what prior work has said about how gender is viewed in visual media.

A screenshot from KYD showing the relationship between words that describe attractiveness and gendered words. For example, “attractive” and “male/man/boy” co-occur 12 times, but we expect ~60 times by chance (the ratio is 0.2x). On the other hand, “attractive” and “female/woman/girl” co-occur 2.62 times more than chance.

KYD also allows us to manually inspect images for each relation by clicking on the relation in question. For example, we can see images whose captions include female terms (e.g. “woman”) and the word “beautiful”.

Exploring Age Bias
Adults older than 65 have been shown to be underrepresented in datasets relative to their presence in the general population — a first step toward improving age representation is to allow developers to assess it in their datasets. By looking at caption words describing different activities and analyzing their relation to caption words describing age, KYD helped us to assess the range of example captions depicting older adults. Having example captions of adults in a range of environments and activities is important for a variety of tasks, such as image captioning or pedestrian detection.

The first trend that KYD made clear is how rarely annotators described people as older adults in captions detailing different activities. The relations tab also shows a trend wherein “elderly”, “old”, and “older” tend not to occur with verbs that describe a variety of physical activities that might be important for a system to be able to detect. Important to note is that, relative to “young”, “old” is more often used to describe things other than people, such as belongings or clothing, so these relations are also capturing some uses that don’t describe people.

The relationship between words associated with age and movement from a screenshot of KYD.

The underrepresentation of captions containing the references to older adults that we examined here could be rooted in a relative lack of images depicting older adults as well as in a tendency for annotators to omit older age-related terms when describing people in images. While manual inspection of the intersection of “old” and “running” shows a negative relation, we notice that it shows no older people and a number of locomotives. KYD makes it easy to quantitatively and qualitatively inspect relations to identify dataset strengths and areas for improvement.

Understanding the contents of ML datasets is a critical first step to developing suitable strategies to mitigate the downstream impact of unfair dataset bias. The above analysis points towards several potential mitigations. For example, correlations between certain activities and social groups, which can lead trained models to reproduce social stereotypes, can be potentially mitigated by “dataset balancing” — increasing the representation of under-represented group/activity combinations. However, mitigations focused exclusively on dataset balancing are not sufficient, as our analysis of how different genders are described by annotators demonstrated. We found annotators’ subjective judgements of people portrayed in images were reflected within the final dataset, suggesting a deeper look at methods of image annotations are needed. One solution for data practitioners who are developing image captioning datasets is to consider integrating guidelines that have been developed for writing image descriptions that are sensitive to race, gender, and other identity categories.

The above case studies highlight only some of the KYD features. For example, Cloud Vision API signals are also integrated into KYD and can be used to infer signals that annotators haven’t labeled directly. We encourage the broader ML community to perform their own KYD case studies and share their findings.

KYD complements other dataset analysis tools being developed across the ML community, including Google’s growing Responsible AI toolkit. We look forward to ML practitioners using KYD to better understand their datasets and mitigate potential bias and fairness concerns. If you have feedback on KYD, please write to knowyourdata-feedback@google.com.

The analysis and write-up in this post were conducted with equal contribution by Emily Denton, Mark Díaz, and Alex Hanna. We thank Marie Pellat, Ludovic Peran, Daniel Smilkov, Nikhil Thorat and Tsung-Yi for their contributions to and reviews of this post.

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Improved Detection of Elusive Polyps via Machine Learning

Improved Detection of Elusive Polyps via Machine Learning

Posted by Yossi Matias, Vice President and Ehud Rivlin, Research Scientist, Google Research

With the increasing ability to consistently and accurately process large amounts of data, particularly visual data, computer-aided diagnostic systems are more frequently being used to assist physicians in their work. This, in turn, can lead to meaningful improvements in health care. An example of where this could be especially useful is in the diagnosis and treatment of colorectal cancer (CRC), which is especially deadly and results in over 900K deaths per year, globally. CRC originates in small pre-cancerous lesions in the colon, called polyps, the identification and removal of which is very successful in preventing CRC-related deaths.

The standard procedure used by gastroenterologists (GIs) to detect and remove polyps is the colonoscopy, and about 19 million such procedures are performed annually in the US alone. During a colonoscopy, the gastroenterologist uses a camera-containing probe to check the intestine for pre-cancerous polyps and early signs of cancer, and removes tissue that looks worrisome. However, complicating factors, such as incomplete detection (in which the polyp appears within the field of view, but is missed by the GI, perhaps due to its size or shape) and incomplete exploration (in which the polyp does not appear in the camera’s field of view), can lead to a high fraction of missed polyps. In fact, studies suggest that 22%–28% of polyps are missed during colonoscopies, of which 20%–24% have the potential to become cancerous (adenomas).

Today, we are sharing progress made in using machine learning (ML) to help GIs fight colorectal cancer by making colonoscopies more effective. In “Detection of Elusive Polyps via a Large Scale AI System”, we present an ML model designed to combat the problem of incomplete detection by helping the GI detect polyps that are within the field of view. This work adds to our previously published work that maximizes the coverage of the colon during the colonoscopy by flagging for GI follow-up areas that may have been missed. Using clinical studies, we show that these systems significantly improve polyp detection rates.

Incomplete Exploration
To help the GI detect polyps that are outside the field of view, we previously developed an ML system that reduces the rate of incomplete exploration by estimating the fractions of covered and non-covered regions of a colon during a colonoscopy. This earlier work uses computer vision and geometry in a technique we call colonoscopy coverage deficiency via depth, to compute segment-by-segment coverage for the colon. It does so in two phases: first computing depth maps for each frame of the colonoscopy video, and then using these depth maps to compute the coverage in real time.

The ML system computes a depth image (middle) from a single RGB image (left). Then, based on the computation of depth images for a video sequence, it calculates local coverage (right), and detects where the coverage has been deficient and a second look is required (blue color indicates observed segments where red indicates uncovered ones). You can learn more about this work in our previous blog post.

This segment-by-segment work yields the ability to estimate what fraction of the current segment has been covered. The helpfulness of such functionality is clear: during the procedure itself, a physician may be alerted to segments with deficient coverage, and can immediately return to review these areas, potentially reducing the rates of missed polyps due to incomplete exploration.

Incomplete Detection
In our most recent paper, we look into the problem of incomplete detection. We describe an ML model that aids a GI in detecting polyps that are within the field of view, so as to reduce the rate of incomplete detection. We developed a system that is based on convolutional neural networks (CNN) with an architecture that combines temporal logic with a single frame detector, resulting in more accurate detection.

This new system has two principal advantages. The first is that the system improves detection performance by reducing the number of false negatives detections of elusive polyps, those polyps that are particularly difficult for GIs to detect. The second advantage is the very low false positive rate of the system. This low false positive rate makes these systems more likely to be adopted in the clinic.

Examples of the variety of polyps detected by the ML system.

We trained the system on 3600 procedures (86M video frames) and tested it on 1400 procedures (33M frames). All the videos and metadata were de-identified. The system detected 97% of the polyps (i.e., it yielded 97% sensitivity) at 4.6 false alarms per procedure, which is a substantial improvement over previously published results. Of the false alarms, follow-up review showed that some were, in fact, valid polyp detections, indicating that the system was able to detect polyps that were missed by the performing endoscopist and by those who annotated the data. The performance of the system on these elusive polyps suggests its generalizability in that the system has learned to detect examples that were initially missed by all who viewed the procedure.

We evaluated the system performance on polyps that are in the field of view for less than five seconds, which makes them more difficult for the GI to detect, and for which models typically have much lower sensitivity. In this case the system attained a sensitivity that is about three times that of the sensitivity that the original procedure achieved. When the polyps were present in the field of view for less than 2 seconds, the difference was even more stark — the system exhibited a 4x improvement in sensitivity.

It is also interesting to note that the system is fairly insensitive to the choice of neural network architecture. We used two architectures: RetinaNet and  LSTM-SSD. RetinaNet is a leading technique for object detection on static images (used for video by applying it to frames in a consecutive fashion). It is one of the top performers on a variety of benchmarks, given a fixed computational budget, and is known for balancing speed of computation with accuracy. LSTM-SSD is a true video object detection architecture, which can explicitly account for the temporal character of the video (e.g., temporal consistency of detections, ability to deal with blur and fast motion, etc.). It is known for being robust and very computationally lightweight and can therefore run on less expensive processors. Comparable results were also obtained on the much heavier Faster R-CNN architecture. The fact that results are similar across different architectures implies that one can choose the network meeting the available hardware specifications.

Prospective Clinical Research Study
As part of the research reported in our detection paper we ran a clinical validation on 100 procedures in collaboration with Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, where our system was used in real time to help GIs. The system helped detect an average of one polyp per procedure that would have otherwise been missed by the GI performing the procedure, while not missing any of the polyps detected by the GIs, and with 3.8 false alarms per procedure. The feedback from the GIs was consistently positive.

We are encouraged by the potential helpfulness of this system for improving polyp detection, and we look forward to working together with the doctors in the procedure room to further validate this research.

The research was conducted by teams from Google Health and Google Research, Israel with support from Verily Life Sciences, and in collaboration with Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Verily is advancing this research via a newly established center in Israel, led by Ehud Rivlin. This research was conducted by Danny Veikherman, Tomer Golany, Dan M. Livovsky, Amit Aides, Valentin Dashinsky, Nadav Rabani, David Ben Shimol, Yochai Blau, Liran Katzir, Ilan Shimshoni, Yun Liu, Ori Segol, Eran Goldin, Greg Corrado, Jesse Lachter, Yossi Matias, Ehud Rivlin, and Daniel Freedman. Our appreciation also goes to several institutions and GIs who provided advice along the way and tested our system prototype. We would like to thank all of our team members and collaborators who worked on this project with us, including: Chen Barshai, Nia Stoykova, and many others.

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Google at ACL 2021

Google at ACL 2021

Posted by Catherine Armato, Program Manager

This week, the 59th annual meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL), a premier conference covering a broad spectrum of research areas that are concerned with computational approaches to natural language, is taking place online.

As a leader in natural language processing and understanding, and a Diamond Level sponsor of ACL 2021, Google will showcase the latest research in the field with over 35 publications, and the organization of and participation in a variety of workshops and tutorials.

If you’re registered for ACL 2021, we hope that you’ll visit the Google virtual booth in Gather Town to learn more about the projects and opportunities at Google that go into solving interesting problems for billions of people. You can also learn more about Google’s participation on the ACL 2021 Expo page, and see a full list of Google publications below (Google affiliations in bold).

Organizing Committee
Senior Area Chairs include: Dan Roth, Emily Pitler, Jimmy Lin, Ming-Wei Chang, Sebastian Ruder, Slav Petrov
Area Chairs include: Ankur P. Parikh, Artem Sokolov, Bhuwan Dhingra, Cicero Nogueira dos Santos, Colin Cherry, Dani Yogatama, David Mimno, Hideto Kazawa, Ian Tenney, Jasmijn Bastings, Jun Suzuki, Katja Filippova, Kyle Gorma, Lu Wang, Manaal Faruqui, Natalie Schluter, Peter Liu, Radu Soricut, Sebastian Gehrmann, Shashi Narayan, Tal Linzen, Vinodkumar Prabhakaran, Waleed Ammar

Parameter-Efficient Multi-task Fine-Tuning for Transformers via Shared Hypernetwork
Rabeeh Karimi Mahabadi*, Sebastian Ruder, Mostafa Dehghani, James Henderson

TicketTalk: Toward Human-Level Performance with End-to-End, Transaction-Based Dialog Systems
Bill Byrne, Karthik Krishnamoorthi, Saravanan Ganesh, Mihir Sanjay Kale

Increasing Faithfulness in Knowledge-Grounded Dialogue with Controllable Feature
Hannah Rashkin, David Reitter, Gaurav Singh Tomar, Dipanjan Das

Compositional Generalization and Natural Language Variation: Can a Semantic Parsing Approach Handle Both?
Peter Shaw, Ming-Wei Chang, Panupong Pasupat, Kristina Toutanova

Exploiting Language Relatedness for Low Web-Resource Language Model Adaptation: An Indic Languages Study
Yash Khemchandani, Sarvesh Mehtani, Vaidehi Patil, Abhijeet Awasthi, Partha Talukdar, Sunita Sarawagi

Causal Analysis of Syntactic Agreement Mechanisms in Neural Language Model
Matthew Finlayson, Aaron Mueller, Sebastian Gehrmann, Stuart Shieber, Tal Linzen*, Yonatan Belinkov

Modeling Fine-Grained Entity Types with Box Embeddings
Yasumasa Onoe, Michael Boratko, Andrew McCallum, Greg Durrett

TextSETTR: Few-Shot Text Style Extraction and Tunable Targeted Restyling
Parker Riley*, Noah Constant, Mandy Guo, Girish Kumar*, David Uthus, Zarana Parekh

Which Linguist Invented the Lightbulb? Presupposition Verification for Question-Answering
Najoung Kim*, Ellie Pavlick, Burcu Karagol Ayan, Deepak Ramachandran

H-Transformer-1D: Fast One-Dimensional Hierarchical Attention for Sequences
Zhenhai Zhu, Radu Soricut

Are Pretrained Convolutions Better than Pretrained Transformers?
Yi Tay, Mostafa Dehghani, Jai Gupta, Dara Bahri, Vamsi Aribandi, Zhen Qin, Donald Metzler

Benchmarking Scalable Methods for Streaming Cross Document Entity Coreference
Robert L Logan IV, Andrew McCallum, Sameer Singh, Dan Bikel

PhotoChat: A Human-Human Dialogue Dataset With Photo Sharing Behavior For Joint Image-Text Modeling
Xiaoxue Zang, Lijuan Liu, Maria Wang, Yang Song*, Hao Zhang, Jindong Chen

Focus Attention: Promoting Faithfulness and Diversity in Summarization
Rahul Aralikatte*, Shashi Narayan, Joshua Maynez, Sascha Rothe, Ryan McDonald*

A Cognitive Regularizer for Language Modeling
Jason Wei, Clara Meister, Ryan Cotterell

Language Model Augmented Relevance Score
Ruibo Liu, Jason Wei, Soroush Vosoughi

Cross-Replication Reliability – An Empirical Approach to Interpreting Inter-rater Reliability
Ka Wong, Praveen Paritosh, Lora Aroyo

TIMEDIAL: Temporal Commonsense Reasoning in Dialog
Lianhui Qin*, Aditya Gupta, Shyam Upadhyay, Luheng He, Yejin Choi, Manaal Faruqui

StructFormer: Joint Unsupervised Induction of Dependency and Constituency Structure from Masked Language Modeling
Yikang Shen*, Yi Tay, Che Zheng, Dara Bahri, Donald Metzler, Aaron Courville

MOLEMAN: Mention-Only Linking of Entities with a Mention Annotation Network
Nicholas FitzGerald, Jan A. Botha, Daniel Gillick, Daniel M. Bikel, Tom Kwiatkowski, Andrew McCallum

Neural Retrieval for Question Answering with Cross-Attention Supervised Data Augmentation
Yinfei Yanga, Ning Jinb, Kuo Linb, Mandy Guoa, Daniel Cera

ROPE: Reading Order Equivariant Positional Encoding for Graph-Based Document Information Extraction
Chen-Yu Lee, Chun-Liang Li, Chu Wang∗, Renshen Wang, Yasuhisa Fujii, Siyang Qin, Ashok Popat, Tomas Pfister

Measuring and Improving BERT’s Mathematical Abilities by Predicting the Order of Reasoning
Piotr Piekos, Henryk Michalewski, Mateusz Malinowsk

Improving Compositional Generalization in Classification Tasks via Structure Annotations
Juyong Kim, Pradeep Ravikumar, Joshua Ainslie, Santiago Ontañón

A Simple Recipe for Multilingual Grammatical Error Correction
Sascha Rothe, Jonathan Mallinson, Eric Malmi, Sebastian Krause, Aliaksei Severyn

nmT5 – Is Parallel Data Still Relevant for Pre-training Massively Multilingual Language Models?
Mihir Kale, Aditya Siddhant, Noah Constant, Melvin Johnson, Rami Al-Rfou, Linting Xue

QA-Driven Zero-Shot Slot Filling with Weak Supervision Pretraining
Xinya Du*, Luheng He, Qi Li, Dian Yu*, Panupong Pasupat, Yuan Zhang

AgreeSum: Agreement-Oriented Multi-Document Summarization
Richard Yuanzhe Pang*, Adam D. Lelkes, Vinh Q. Tran, Cong Yu

Disfl-QA: A Benchmark Dataset for Understanding Disfluencies in Question Answering
Aditya Gupta, Jiacheng Xu*, Shyam Upadhyay, Diyi Yang, Manaal Faruqui

Training ELECTRA Augmented with Multi-word Selection
Jiaming Shen*, Jialu Liu, Tianqi Liu, Cong Yu, Jiawei Han

A Survey of Data Augmentation Approaches for NLP
Steven Y. Feng, Varun Gangal, Jason Wei, Sarath Chandar, Soroush Vosoughi, Teruko Mitamura, Eduard Hovy

RealFormer: Transformer Likes Residual Attention
Ruining He, Anirudh Ravula, Bhargav Kanagal, Joshua Ainslie

Scaling Within Document Coreference to Long Texts
Raghuveer Thirukovalluru, Nicholas Monath, Kumar Shridhar, Manzil Zaheer, Mrinmaya Sachan, Andrew McCallum

MergeDistill: Merging Language Models using Pre-trained Distillation
Simran Khanuja, Melvin Johnson, Partha Talukdar

DoT: An Efficient Double Transformer for NLP tasks with Tables
Syrine Krichene, Thomas Müller*, Julian Martin Eisenschlos

How Reliable are Model Diagnostics?
Vamsi Aribandi, Yi Tay, Donald Metzler

Interactive Learning for Natural Language Processing
Organizers include: Filip Radlinski
Invited Panelist: Julia Kreutzer

6th Workshop on Representation Learning for NLP (RepL4NLP-2021)
Organizers include: Chris Dyer, Laura Rimell

Third Workshop on Gender Bias for Natural Language Processing
Organizers include: Kellie Webster

Benchmarking: Past, Present and Future
Invited Speaker: Eunsol Choi

SemEval-2021, 15th International Workshop on Semantic Evaluation
Organizers include: Natalie Schluter

Workshop on Online Abuse and Harms
Organizers include: Vinodkumar Prabhakaran

GEM: Natural Language Generation, Evaluation, and Metrics
Organizers include: Sebastian Gehrmann

Workshop on Natural Language Processing for Programming
Invited Speaker: Charles Sutton

WPT 2021: The 17th International Conference on Parsing Technologies
Organizers include: Weiwei Sun

Recognizing Multimodal Entailment
Instructors include: Cesar Ilharco, Vaiva Imbrasaite, Ricardo Marino, Jannis Bulian, Chen Sun, Afsaneh Shirazi, Lucas Smaira, Cordelia Schmid

*  Work conducted while at Google. 

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Partnering with the NSF on a research institute for AI to improve care for older adults

From the early days of the internet to the development of the Human Genome Project, U.S. government-funded R&D has yielded remarkable progress for society, and today it is an important engine for AI research. That’s why, last year, we were proud to announce our partnership with the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide $5M to support the establishment of national research institutes working in the area of Human-AI Interaction and Collaboration (HAIC). This partnership—which is part of a more than $300M NSF investment in AI Research Institutes—will create vibrant research centers across the U.S. to advance how people and AI collaborate through speech, text, gestures, and more. It also builds on our partnership with the NSF on next generation networks, and our AI research collaborations with U.S. federal agencies on weather modeling, robust AI systems, whale population monitoring, and more. 

Today, we are delighted to share that NSF has selected the AI Institute for Collaborative Assistance and Responsive Interaction for Networked Groups (AI-CARING) led by Georgia Tech, along with Carnegie Mellon University, Oregon State University, and University of Massachusetts Lowell to receive the $20M AI Institute for HAIC grant. AI-CARING will improve collaboration and communication in caregiving environments for older adults by developing AI systems that adjust to the evolving personal needs and behaviors of those requiring care. With our growing research presence in Atlanta, we’re excited to build on our rich history of collaboration with Georgia Tech and its partners in this effort—most recently supporting some of these universities’ work to help vulnerable populations find important information on COVID-19 and monitoring and forecasting disease spread.

With a growing population of older adults in need of caregiving, AI systems can be useful in a variety of contexts, like conversational assistants, health sensing, and improving coordination across the care network. For example, AI can help existing voice assistants better understand people with speech impairments, and can be integrated in home bathrooms to make them more accessible. The AI-CARING Institute will develop assistive AI agents across these types of contexts to help those requiring caregiving to sustain their independence and  improve their quality of life. Additionally, this research will be the product of interdisciplinary teams—with expertise across AI, geriatrics, behavioral sciences, and design—working to ensure that AI is deployed responsibly in this context, with human-centered principles in mind.

Congratulations to the recipient universities of the AI Institute awards and the faculty, listed below. We look forward to learning from the team’s research, sharing our resources and expertise, and building a collaboration to help older adults lead more independent lives and improve the quality of their care.

Recipient university institutions:

  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Oregon State University
  • University of Massachusetts Lowell


  • Sonia Chernova (Georgia Tech) – PI
  • Elizabeth Mynatt (Georgia Tech) – Co-PI
  • Reid Simmons (Carnegie Mellon University) – Co-PI
  • Kagan Tumer (Oregon State University) – Co-PI
  • Holly Yanco (University of Massachusetts Lowell) – Co-PI

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Using AI to map Africa’s buildings

Using AI to map Africa’s buildings

Between 2020 and 2050, Africa’s population is expected to double, adding 950 million more people to its urban areas alone. However, according to 2018 figures, a scarcity of affordable housing in many African cities has forced over half of the city dwellers in Sub-Saharan Africa to live in informal settlements. And in rural areas, many also occupy makeshift structures due to widespread poverty.

These shelters have remained largely undetectable using traditional monitoring tools. Machine learning, computer vision and remote sensing have come some way in recognizing buildings and roads, but when it comes to denser neighborhoods, it becomes much harder to distinguish small and makeshift buildings. 

Why is this an issue? Because when preparing a humanitarian response, forecasting transportation needs, or planning basic services, being able to accurately map the built environment – which allows us to ascertain population density – is absolutely key.

Enter Google’s Open Buildings

Google’s Open Buildings is a new open access dataset containing the locations and geometry of buildings across most of Africa. From Lagos’ Makoko settlement to Dadaab’s refugee camps, millions of previously invisible buildings have popped up in our dataset. This improved building data helps refine the understanding of where people and communities live, providing actionable information for state and non-state actors looking to provide services from sanitation to education and vaccination.

  • An aerial photograph of a refugee settlement in Uganda

    Refugee settlement in Yumbe district, Uganda

  • An aerial photograph of rural dwellings in Ethiopia

    Rural dwellings in Sholtaka, Ethiopia

  • An aerial photograph of an urban area in DRC

    High density urban area in Kinshasa, DRC

Open Buildings uses AI to provide a digital footprint of buildings. This includes producing polygons with the outlines of at least 500 million buildings across the African continent, the majority of which are less than 20 square meters. The full dataset encompasses 50 countries.

The data provides the exact location and polygon outline of each building, its size, a confidence score for it being detected as a valid building and a Plus Code. There is, however, no information about the type of building, its street address, or any identifying data. We have also excluded sensitive areas such as conflict zones to protect vulnerable populations.

Satellite mapping using AI 

The Open Buildings dataset was generated by using a model trained to detect buildings using satellite imagery from the African continent. The information for the buildings detected is then saved in CSV files which are available to download. The technical details of the Open Buildings dataset, including usage and tutorials, are available on the dataset website and the Google AI blog.

Animation showing landscape in Africa being mapped

How will this improve planning?

There are many important ways in which this data can be used, including — but not limited to — the following:

Population mapping: Building footprints are a key ingredient for estimating population density. This information is vital to planning for services for communities. 

Humanitarian response: To plan the response to a flood, drought, or other natural disaster.

Environmental science: Knowledge of settlement density is useful for understanding the human impact on the natural environment. 

Addressing systems: In many areas, buildings do not have formal addresses. This can make it difficult for people to access social benefits and economic opportunities. Building footprint data can help with the rollout of digital addressing systems such asPlus Codes.

Vaccination planning: Knowing the density of population and settlements helps to anticipate demand for vaccines and the best locations for facilities. This data is also useful for precision epidemiology, as well as prevention efforts such as mosquito net distribution.

Statistical indicators: Buildings data can be used to help calculate statistical indicators for national planning, such as the numbers of houses in the catchment areas of schools and health centers, mean travel distances to the nearest hospital or demand forecast for transportation systems.

Google’s AI Center in Accra

This project was led by our team at the AI Research Center in Accra, Ghana. The center was launched in 2019 to bring together top machine learning researchers and engineers dedicated to AI research and its applications. The research team has already been improving Google Maps with AI, adding 120 million buildings and 228,000 km of roads across Africa to Maps in the last year. This work is part of our broader AI for Social Good efforts.

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Mapping Africa’s Buildings with Satellite Imagery

Mapping Africa’s Buildings with Satellite Imagery

Posted by John Quinn, Software Engineer, Google Research, Ghana

An accurate record of building footprints is important for a range of applications, from population estimation and urban planning to humanitarian response and environmental science. After a disaster, such as a flood or an earthquake, authorities need to estimate how many households have been affected. Ideally there would be up-to-date census information for this, but in practice such records may be out of date or unavailable. Instead, data on the locations and density of buildings can be a valuable alternative source of information.

A good way to collect such data is through satellite imagery, which can map the distribution of buildings across the world, particularly in areas that are isolated or difficult to access. However, detecting buildings with computer vision methods in some environments can be a challenging task. Because satellite imaging involves photographing the earth from several hundred kilometres above the ground, even at high resolution (30–50 cm per pixel), a small building or tent shelter occupies only a few pixels. The task is even more difficult for informal settlements, or rural areas where buildings constructed with natural materials can visually blend into the surroundings. There are also many types of natural and artificial features that can be easily confused with buildings in overhead imagery.

Objects that can confuse computer vision models for building identification (clockwise from top left) pools, rocks, enclosure walls and shipping containers.

In “Continental-Scale Building Detection from High-Resolution Satellite Imagery”, we address these challenges, using new methods for detecting buildings that work in rural and urban settings across different terrains, such as savannah, desert, and forest, as well as informal settlements and refugee facilities. We use this building detection model to create the Open Buildings dataset, a new open-access data resource containing the locations and footprints of 516 million buildings with coverage across most of the African continent. The dataset will support several practical, scientific and humanitarian applications, ranging from disaster response or population mapping to planning services such as new medical facilities or studying human impact on the natural environment.

Model Development
We built a training dataset for the building detection model by manually labelling 1.75 million buildings in 100k images. The figure below shows some examples of how we labelled images in the training data, taking into account confounding characteristics of different areas across the African continent. In rural areas, for example, it was necessary to identify different types of dwelling places and to disambiguate them from natural features, while in urban areas we needed to develop labelling policies for dense and contiguous structures.

(1) Example of a compound containing both dwelling places as well as smaller outbuildings such as grain stores. (2) Example of a round, thatched-roof structure that can be difficult for a model to distinguish from trees, and where it is necessary to use cues from pathways, clearings and shadows to disambiguate. (3) Example of several contiguous buildings for which the boundaries cannot be easily distinguished.

We trained the model to detect buildings in a bottom-up way, first by classifying each pixel as building or non-building, and then grouping these pixels together into individual instances. The detection pipeline was based on the U-Net model, which is commonly used in satellite image analysis. One advantage of U-Net is that it is a relatively compact architecture, and so can be applied to large quantities of imaging data without a heavy compute burden. This is critical, because the final task of applying this to continental-scale satellite imagery means running the model on many billions of image tiles.

Example of segmenting buildings in satellite imagery. Left: Source image; Center: Semantic segmentation, with each pixel assigned a confidence score that it is a building vs. non-building; Right: Instance segmentation, obtained by thresholding and grouping together connected components.

Initial experiments with the basic model had low precision and recall, for example due to the variety of natural and artificial features with building-like appearance. We found a number of methods that improved performance. One was the use of mixup as a regularisation method, where random training images are blended together by taking a weighted average. Though mixup was originally proposed for image classification, we modified it to be used for semantic segmentation. Regularisation is important in general for this building segmentation task, because even with 100k training images, the training data do not capture the full variation of terrain, atmospheric and lighting conditions that the model is presented with at test time, and hence, there is a tendency to overfit. This is mitigated by mixup as well as random augmentation of training images.

Another method that we found to be effective was the use of unsupervised self-training. We prepared a set of 100 million satellite images from across Africa, and filtered these to a subset of 8.7 million images that mostly contained buildings. This dataset was used for self-training using the Noisy Student method, in which the output of the best building detection model from the previous stage is used as a ‘teacher’ to then train a ‘student’ model that makes similar predictions from augmented images. In practice, we found that this reduced false positives and sharpened the detection output. The student model gave higher confidence to buildings and lower confidence to background.

Difference in model output between the student and teacher models for a typical image. In panel (d), red areas are those that the student model finds more likely to be buildings than the teacher model, and blue areas more likely to be background.

One problem that we faced initially was that our model had a tendency to create “blobby” detections, without clearly delineated edges and with a tendency for neighbouring buildings to be merged together. To address this, we applied another idea from the original U-Net paper, which is to use distance weighting to adapt the loss function to emphasise the importance of making correct predictions near boundaries. During training, distance weighting places greater emphasis at the edges by adding weight to the loss — particularly where there are instances that nearly touch. For building detection, this encourages the model to correctly identify the gaps in between buildings, which is important so that many close structures are not merged together. We found that the original U-Net distance weighting formulation was helpful but slow to compute. So, we developed an alternative based on Gaussian convolution of edges, which was both faster and more effective.

Distance weighting schemes to emphasise nearby edges: U-Net (left) and Gaussian convolution of edges (right).

Our technical report has more details on each of these methods.

We evaluated the performance of the model on several different regions across the continent, in different categories: urban, rural, and medium-density. In addition, with the goal of preparing for potential humanitarian applications, we tested the model on regions with displaced persons and refugee settlements. Precision and recall did vary between regions, so achieving consistent performance across the continent is an ongoing challenge.

Precision-recall curves, measured at 0.5 intersection-over-union threshold.

When visually inspecting the detections for low-scoring regions, we noted various causes. In rural areas, label errors were problematic. For example, single buildings within a mostly-empty area can be difficult for labellers to spot. In urban areas, the model had a tendency to split large buildings into separate instances. The model also underperformed in desert terrain, where buildings were hard to distinguish against the background.

We carried out an ablation study to understand which methods contributed most to the final performance, measured in mean average precision (mAP). Distance weighting, mixup and the use of ImageNet pre-training were the biggest factors for the performance of the supervised learning baseline. The ablated models that did not use these methods had a mAP difference of -0.33, -0.12 and -0.07 respectively. Unsupervised self-training gave a further significant boost of +0.06 mAP.

Ablation study of training methods. The first row shows the mAP performance of the best model combined with self-training, and the second row shows the best model with supervised learning only (the baseline). By disabling each training optimization from the baseline in turn, we observe the impact on mAP test performance. Distance weighting has the most significant effect.

Generating the Open Buildings Dataset
To create the final dataset, we applied our best building detection model to satellite imagery across the African continent (8.6 billion image tiles covering 19.4 million km2, 64% of the continent), which resulted in the detection of 516M distinct structures.

Each building’s outline was simplified as a polygon and associated with a Plus Code, which is a geographic identifier made up of numbers and letters, akin to a street address, and useful for identifying buildings in areas that don’t have formal addressing systems. We also include confidence scores and guidance on suggested thresholds to achieve particular precision levels.

The sizes of the structures vary as shown below, tending towards small footprints. The inclusion of small structures is important, for example, to support analyses of informal settlements or refugee facilities.

Distribution of building footprint sizes.

The data is freely available and we look forward to hearing how it is used. In the future, we may add new features and regions, depending on usage and feedback.

This work is part of our AI for Social Good efforts and was led by Google Research, Ghana. Thanks to the co-authors of this work: Wojciech Sirko, Sergii Kashubin, Marvin Ritter, Abigail Annkah, Yasser Salah Eddine Bouchareb, Yann Dauphin, Daniel Keysers, Maxim Neumann and Moustapha Cisse. We are grateful to Abdoulaye Diack, Sean Askay, Ruth Alcantara and Francisco Moneo for help with coordination. Rob Litzke, Brian Shucker, Yan Mayster and Michelina Pallone provided valuable assistance with geo infrastructure.

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