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Julia for machine learning. Will the new language pick up pace?

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Machine learning can be done using many languages, with Python and R being the most popular. But one language has been overlooked for some time—Julia. Why isn’t Julia machine learning a thing?

Julia isn’t an obvious choice for machine learning simply because it’s a new language that has only recently hit version 1.0. While Python is well-established, with a large community and many libraries, Julia simply doesn’t have the community to shout about it. And that’s a shame.

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Right now Julia is used in various fields. From optimizing milk production in dairy farms to parallel supercomputing for astronomy, Julia has a wide range of applications. A common theme here is that these actions all require numerical, scientific, and sometimes parallel computation. Julia is well-suited to the sort of tasks where intensive computation is essential.

Viral Shah, CEO of Julia Computing said to ForbesAmazon, Apple, Disney, Facebook, Ford, Google, Grindr, IBM, Microsoft, NASA, Oracle and Uber are other Julia users, partners and organizations hiring Julia programmers.” Clearly, Julia is powering the analytical nous of some of the most high profile organizations on the planet. Perhaps it just needs more cheerleading to go truly mainstream.

Why Julia is a great language for machine learning

Julia was originally designed for high-performance numerical analysis. This means that everything that has gone into its design is built for the very things you need to do to build effective machine learning systems.

Speed and functionality

Julia combines the functionality from various popular languages like Python, R, Matlab, SAS and Stata with the speed of C++ and Java. A lot of the standard LaTeX symbols can be used in Julia, with the syntax usually being the same as LaTeX. This mathematical syntax makes it easy for implementing mathematical formulae in code and make Julia machine learning possible. It also has in-built support for parallelism which allows utilization of multiple cores at once making it fast at computations.

Julia’s loops and functions features are pretty fast, fast enough that you would probably notice significant performance differences against other languages. The performance can be almost comparable to C with very little code actually used. With packages like ArrayFire, generic code can be run on GPUs.

In Julia, the multiple dispatch feature is very useful for defining number and array-like datatypes. Matrices, data tables work with good compatibility and performance. Julia has automatic garbage collection, a collection of libraries for mathematical calculations, linear algebra, random number generation, and regular expression matching.

Libraries and scalability

Julia machine learning can be done with powerful tools like MLBase.jl, Flux.jl, Knet.jl, that can be used for machine learning and artificial intelligence systems. It also has a scikit-learn implementation called ScikitLearn.jl. Although ScikitLearn.jl is not an official port, it is a useful additional tool for building machine learning systems with Julia. As if all those weren’t enough, Julia also has TensorFlow.jl and MXNet.jl. So, if you already have experience with these tools, in other implementations, the transition is a little easier than learning everything from scratch.

Julia is also incredibly scalable. It can be deployed on large clusters quickly, which is vital if you’re working with big data across a distributed system.

Should you consider Julia machine learning?

Because it’s fast and possesses a great range of features, Julia could potentially overtake both Python and R to be the choice of language for machine learning in the future.

Okay, maybe we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. But with Julia reaching the 1.0 milestone, and the language rising on the TIOBE index, you certainly shouldn’t rule out Julia when it comes to machine learning. Julia is also available to use in the popular tool Jupyter Notebook, paving a path for wider adoption.

A note of caution, however, is important. Rather than simply dropping everything for Julia, it will be worth monitoring the growth of the language. Over the next 12 to 24 months we’ll likely see new projects and libraries, and the Julia machine learning community expanding. If you start hearing more noise about the language, it becomes a much safer option to invest your time and energy in learning it. If you are just starting off with machine learning, then you should stick to other popular languages.

An experienced engineer, however, who already has a good grip on other languages shouldn’t be scared of experimenting with Julia – it gives you another option, and might just help you to uncover new ways of working and solving problems.

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