Tag Archives: machine learning

MalConv: Lessons learned from Deep Learning on executables

I don't usually write up my technical work here, mostly because I spend enough hours as is doing technical writing. But a co-author, Jon Barker, recently wrote a post on the NVIDIA Parallel For All blog about one of our papers on neural networks for detecting malware, so I thought I'd link to it here. (You can read the paper itself, "Malware Detection by Eating a Whole EXE" here.) Plus it was on the front page of Hacker News earlier this week, which is not something I thought would ever happen to my work.

Rather than rehashing everything in Jon's Parallel for All post about our work, I want to highlight some of the lessons we learned from doing this about ML/neural nets/deep learning.

As way of background, I'll lift a few paragraphs from Jon's introduction:

The paper introduces an artificial neural network trained to differentiate between benign and malicious Windows executable files with only the raw byte sequence of the executable as input. This approach has several practical advantages:

  • No hand-crafted features or knowledge of the compiler used are required. This means the trained model is generalizable and robust to natural variations in malware.
  • The computational complexity is linearly dependent on the sequence length (binary size), which means inference is fast and scalable to very large files.
  • Important sub-regions of the binary can be identified for forensic analysis.
  • This approach is also adaptable to new file formats, compilers and instruction set architectures—all we need is training data.

We also hope this paper demonstrates that malware detection from raw byte sequences has unique and challenging properties that make it a fruitful research area for the larger machine learning community.

One of the big issues we were confronting with our approach, MalConv, is that executables are often millions of bytes in length. That's orders of magnitude more time steps than most sequence processing networks deal with. Big data usually refers to lots and lots of small data points, but for us each individual sample was big. Saying this was a non-trivial problem is a serious understatement.

The MalConv architecture
Architecture of the malware detection network. (Image copyright NVIDIA.)

Here are three lessons we learned, not about malware or cybersecurity, but about the process of building neural networks on such unusual data.

1. Deep learning != image processing

The large majority of the work in deep learning has been done in the image domain. Of the remainder, the large majority has been in either text or speech. Many of the lessons, best practices, rules of thumb, etc., that we think apply to deep learning may actually be specific to these domains.

For instance, the community has settled around narrow convolutional filters, stacked with a lot of depth as being generally the best way to go. And for images, narrow-and-deep absolutely seems to be the correct choice. But in order to get a network that processes two million time steps to fit in memory at all (on beefy 16GB cards no less) we were forced to go wide-and-shallow.

With images, a pixel values is always a pixel value. 0x20 in a grayscale image is always darkish gray, no matter what. In an executable, a byte values are ridiculously polysemous: 0x20 may be part of an instruction, a string, a bit array, a compressed or encrypted values, an address, etc. You can't interpolate between values at all, so you can't resize or crop the way you would with images to make your data set smaller or introduce data augmentation. Binaries also play havoc with locality, since you can re-arrange functions in any order, among other things. You can't rely on any Tobbler's Law1 relationship the way you can in images, text, or speech.

2. BatchNorm isn't pixie dust

Batch Normalization has this bippity-boppity-boo magic quality. Just sprinkle it on top of your network architecture, and things that didn't converge before now do, and things that did converge now converge faster. It's worked like that every time I've tried it — on images. When we tried it on binaries it actually had the opposite effect: networks that converged slowly now didn't at all, no matter what variety of architecture we tried. It's also had no effect at all on some other esoteric data sets that I've worked on.

We discuss this at more length in the paper (§5.3), but here's the relevant figure:

BatchNorm activations
KDE plots of the convolution response (pre-ReLU) for multiple architectures. Red and orange: two layers of ResNet; green: Inception-v4; blue: our network; black dashed: a true Gaussian distribution for reference.

This is showing the pre-BN activations from MalConv (blue) and from ResNet (red & orange) and Inception-v4 (green). The purpose of BatchNorm is to output values in a standard normal, and it implicitly expects inputs that are relatively close to that. What we suspect is happening is that the input values from other networks aren't gaussian, but they're close-ish.2 The input values for MalConv display huge asperity, and aren't even unimodal. If BatchNorm is being wonky for you, I'd suggest plotting the pre-BN activations and checking to see that they're relatively smooth and unimodal.

3. The Lump of Regularization Fallacy

If you're overfitting, you probably need more regularization. Simple advice, and easily executed. Everytime I see this brought up though, people treat regularization as if it's this monolithic thing. Implicitly, people are talking as if you have some pile of regularization, and if you need to fight overfitting then you just shovel more regularization on top. It doesn't matter what kind, just add more.

We ran in to overfitting problems and tried every method we could think of: weight decay, dropout, regional dropout, gradient noise, activation noise, and on and on. The only one that had any impact was DeCov, which penalized activities in the penultimate layer that are highly correlated with each other. I have no idea what will work on your data — especially if it's not images/speech/text — so try different types. Don't just treat regularization as a single knob that you crank up or down.

I hope some of these lessons are helpful to you if you're into cybersecurity, or pushing machine learning into new domains in general. We'll be presenting the paper this is all based on at the Artificial Intelligence for Cyber Security (AICS) workshop at AAAI in February, so if you're at AAAI then stop by and talk.


  1. Everything is related, but near things are more related than far things. []
  2. I'd love to be able to quantify that closeness, but every test for normality I'm aware of doesn't apply when you have this many samples. If anyone knows of a more robust test please let me know. []
Posted in CS / Science / Tech / Coding | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

AI's "one trick pony" has a hell of a trick

The MIT Technology Review has a recent article by James Somers about error backpropagation, "Is AI Riding a One-Trick Pony?" Overall, I agree with the message in the article. We need to keep thinking of new paradigms because the SotA right now is very useful, but not correct in any rigorous way. However, as much as I agree with the thesis, I think Somers oversells it, especially in the beginning of the piece. For instance, the introductory segment concludes:

When you boil it down, AI today is deep learning, and deep learning is backprop — which is amazing, considering that backprop is more than 30 years old. It’s worth understanding how that happened—how a technique could lie in wait for so long and then cause such an explosion — because once you understand the story of backprop, you’ll start to understand the current moment in AI, and in particular the fact that maybe we’re not actually at the beginning of a revolution. Maybe we’re at the end of one.

That's a bit like saying "When you boil it down, flight is airfoils, and airfoils are Bernoulli's principle — which is amazing, considering that Bernoulli's principle is almost 300 years old." I totally endorse the idea that we ought to understand backprop; I've spent a lot of effort in the last couple of months organizing training for some of my firm's senior leadership on neural networks, and EBP/gradient descent is the heart of my presentation. But I would be very, very careful about concluding that backprop is the entire show.

Backprop was also not "lying in wait." People were working on it since it was introduced in 1986. The problem was that '86 was the height of the 2nd AI winter, which lasted another decade. Just like people should understand backprop to understand contemporary AI, they should learn about the history of AI to understand contemporary AI. Just because no one outside of CS (and precious few people in CS, for that matter) paid any attention to neural networks before 2015 doesn't mean they were completely dormant, only to spring up fully formed in some sort of intellectual Athenian birth.

I really don't want to be in the position of defending backprop. I took the trouble to write a dissertation about non-backprop neural nets for a reason, after all.1 But I also don't want to be in the position of letting sloppy arguments against neural nets go unremarked. That road leads to people mischaracterizing Minksy and Papert, abandoning neural nets for generations, and putting us epochs behind where we might have been.2


PS This is also worth a rejoinder:

Big patterns of neural activity, if you’re a mathematician, can be captured in a vector space, with each neuron’s activity corresponding to a number, and each number to a coordinate of a really big vector. In Hinton’s view, that’s what thought is: a dance of vectors.

That's not what thought is, that's how thought can be represented. Planets are not vectors, but their orbits can be profitably described that way, because "it behooves us to place the foundations of knowledge in mathematics." I'm sorry if that seems pedantic, but the distinction between a thing and its representation—besides giving semioticians something to talk about—underpins much of our interpretation of AI systems and cognitive science as well. Indeed, a huge chunk of data science work is figuring out the right representations. If you can get that, your problem is often largely solved.3

PPS This, on the other hand, I agree with entirely:

Deep learning in some ways mimics what goes on in the human brain, but only in a shallow way. … What we know about intelligence is nothing against the vastness of what we still don’t know.

What I fear is that people read that and conclude that artificial neural networks are built on a shallow foundation, so we should give up on them as being unreliable. A much better conclusion would be that we need to keep working and build better, deeper foundations.


  1. That reason being, roughly put, that we're pretty sure the brain is not using backprop, and it seems ill-advised to ignore the mechanisms employed by the most intelligent thing we are aware of. []
  2. Plus sloppy arguments should be eschewed on the basis of the sloppiness alone, irrespective of their consequences. []
  3. IIRC both Knuth and Torvalds have aphorisms to the effect that once you have chosen the correct data structures, the correct algorithms will naturally follow. I think AI and neuroscience are dealing with a lot of friction because we haven't been able to figure out the right representations/data structures. When we do, the right learning algorithms will follow much more easily. []
Posted in CS / Science / Tech / Coding | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

National AI Strategy

Some of my co-workers published a sponsored piece in the Atlantic calling for a national AI strategy, which was tied in to some discussions at the Washington Ideas event.

I'm 100% on board with the US having a strategy, but I want to offer one caveat: "comprehensive national strategies" are susceptible to becoming top-down, centralized plans, which I think is dangerous.

I'm generally disinclined to centralized planning, for both efficiency and philosophical reasons. I'm not going to take the time now to explain why; I doubt anything I could scratch out here would shift people very much along any kind of Keynes-Hayek spectrum.

So why am I bothering to bring this up? Mostly because I think it would be especially ill-conceived to adopt central planning when it comes to AI. The recent progress in AI has been largely a result of abandoning top-down techniques in favor of bottom-up ones. We've abandoned hand-coded visual feature detectors for convolutional neural networks. We've abandoned human-engineered grammar models for statistical machine translation. In one discipline after another emergent behavior has outpaced decades worth of expert-designed techniques. To layer top-down policy-making on a field built of bottom-up science would be a waste, and an ironic one at that.


PS Having spoken to two of the three authors of this piece, I don't mean to imply that they support centralized planning of the AI industry. This is just something I would be on guard against.

Posted in Business / Economics, CS / Science / Tech / Coding | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Will AI steal our jobs?

As an AI researcher, I think I am required to have an opinion about this. Here's what I have to say to the various tribes.

AI-pessimists: please remember that the Luddites have been wrong about technology causing economic cataclysm every time so far. We're talking about several consecutive centuries of wrongness.1 Please revise your confidence estimates downwards.

AI-optimists: please remember that just because the pessimists have always been wrong in the past does not mean that they must always be wrong in the future. It is not a natural law that the optimists must be right. That labor markets have adapted in the long term does not mean that they must adapt, to say nothing of short-term dislocations. Please revise your confidence estimates downwards.

Everyone: many forms of technology are substitutes for labor. Many forms of technology are complements to labor. Often a single form of technology is both simultaneously. It is impossible to determine a priori which effect will dominate.2 This is true of everything from the mouldboard plough to a convolutional neural network. Don't casually assert AI/ML/robots are qualitatively different. (For example, why does Bill Gates think we need a special tax on robots that is distinct from a tax on any other capital equipment?)

As always, please exercise cognitive and epistemic humility.


  1. I am aware of the work of Gregory Clark and others related to Industrial Revolution era wage and consumption stagnation. If a disaster requires complicated statistical models to provide evidence it exists, I say its scale can not have been that disastrous. []
  2. Who correctly predicted that the introduction of ATMs would coincide with an increase in employment of bank tellers? Anyone? Anyone? Beuller? []
Posted in Business / Economics, CS / Science / Tech / Coding | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment