Interact Privately with Documents Using PrivateGPT: A Guide to Local Question Answering with LLMs

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Written By Zach Johnson

AI and tech enthusiast with a background in machine learning.

I. Introduction

A. Overview of PrivateGPT

PrivateGPT is an open-source project that enables private, offline question answering using documents on your local machine. It utilizes the power of large language models (LLMs) like GPT-4All and LlamaCpp to understand input questions and generate answers using relevant passages from the user’s own documents.

With PrivateGPT, users can ingest documents like PDFs, Word docs, ebooks, and more into an encrypted local vector database. Natural language questions can then be asked without an internet connection, with answers provided by the LLM using context from the ingested documents.

B. Advantages of Local Question Answering

Compared to using public AI APIs, local question answering with PrivateGPT provides:

  • Enhanced privacy – No data leaves the local device, avoiding privacy risks.
  • Improved security – Sensitive documents remain entirely on the user’s machine.
  • Offline access – No reliance on internet connectivity for querying.
  • Relevance – Answers are tailored to documents the user cares about.
  • Customizability – Ingest and ask questions about your own dataset.

C. Importance of Privacy and Data Security in QA

As natural language AI continues advancing, maintaining user privacy and data security is becoming increasingly critical. Users want helpful answers from language models, without compromising sensitive information.

PrivateGPT demonstrates that utility and privacy do not need to be mutually exclusive in AI systems. Local solutions like PrivateGPT will only grow in relevance as more powerful models are developed.

II. Understanding PrivateGPT

A. What is PrivateGPT?

PrivateGPT is an open-source project from Anthropic that enables private question answering offline using documents on a local machine. It combines tools like:

  • LangChain – Framework for building conversational AI apps in Python.
  • GPT-4All – Independent local implementation of models like GPT-3.
  • LlamaCpp – Local LLM alternative to GPT-4All.
  • Chroma – Vector database for semantically indexing text locally.
  • SentenceTransformers – Creates dense embeddings for text similarity.

B. How does PrivateGPT Ensure Privacy?

PrivateGPT is designed to keep data local and private:

  • Queries are answered by a local LLM, not external APIs.
  • Documents are vectorized and stored locally in Chroma.
  • No network connections are needed to query ingested documents.

So while PrivateGPT leverages powerful LLMs, user data remains entirely private.

C. Key Components

PrivateGPT combines several key open-source technologies:

LangChain – Python framework for chaining NLP modules into pipelines. Provides structure.

GPT-4All / LlamaCpp – Local LLMs used to generate answers to queries.

Chroma – Indexes and stores vector embeddings of documents locally.

SentenceTransformers – Creates document embeddings to index in Chroma.

HuggingFace Embeddings – Interface used to load SentenceTransformers.

D. System Requirements

To run PrivateGPT, you’ll need:

  • Python 3.10+ – For LangChain and dependencies.
  • C++ compiler – Needed for some dependencies.
  • GPU (optional) – Significant speedup if available.
  • Local LLM – GPT-4All or LlamaCpp model file (multiple GB).

So you’ll need a modern desktop or laptop with sufficient storage and (ideally) a GPU.

III. Setting Up the Environment

To start using PrivateGPT, you’ll need to install dependencies and add an LLM model.

A. Installation and Requirements

First, install prerequisites:

  • Clone the PrivateGPT GitHub repository.
  • Open the folder in an IDE like VSCode.
  • Install requirements with pip install -r requirements.txt.

If you get errors about a missing pip, install the latest Python first.

B. Downloading and Placing the LLM Model

Next, download a compatible open-source LLM model file:

  • The repo recommends “ggml-gpt4all-j-v1.3-groovy.bin” (GPT-4All model).
  • Unzip the model and place it in a models folder within PrivateGPT’s directory.
  • You can use a different model by updating .env accordingly.

Expect models to be multiple GB in size.

C. Configuring the .env File

PrivateGPT relies on a .env file for configuration:

  • example.env to .env.
  • Set the MODEL_PATH to point to your model.
  • Adjust other settings like batch size as needed.

Refer to the docs for additional details.

IV. Ingesting and Preparing Documents

To query custom documents, you first need to ingest them into PrivateGPT’s local vectorstore.

A. Supported Document Formats

Many file formats can be ingested, including:

  • PDFs
  • Microsoft Word docs
  • HTML, Markdown, ePub, etc.
  • Plain text files
  • CSVs

This flexibility allows ingesting from documents, ebooks, archives, and more.

B. Ingesting Custom Datasets

To ingest your own documents:

  1. Place files in the source_documents folder.
  2. Run python to parse and ingest them.

The script will embed and index documents for querying.

C. Creating a Local Vectorstore

During ingestion, documents are split into smaller passages. These are embedded into dense vectors using SentenceTransformers.

The vector embeddings allow identifying semantic similarity between questions and documents. Relevant passages can be returned.

This vectorstore is indexed and stored efficiently on disk in Chroma’s binary format within the db folder.

V. Running PrivateGPT: Locally Answering Questions

With documents ingested, you can interact by asking natural language questions.

A. How to Ask Questions

Run python to load the LLM and start interactive mode.

You’ll be prompted to enter a query. Type your question and press enter to get an answer.

Initial query generation may take 20-30 seconds, but improves over time as the LLM caches.

B. Understanding the Prompt and Answering Process

When you ask a question, PrivateGPT:

  1. Embeds the question using SentenceTransformers.
  2. Finds the most similar passages in the local vectorstore.
  3. Formulates a prompt for the LLM with the question and context passages.
  4. Feeds batches of tokens from this prompt into the local LLM.
  5. Returns the generated answer.

C. Script Usage and CLI Options

You can customize query behavior using flags:

python --help

Options include:

  • --query – Provide question via argument instead of interactive mode.
  • --documents – Number of documents to use as context.
  • --chunks – Max passages returned from documents.

So you can automate or tweak relevance.

VI. Performance and Privacy Considerations

There are tradeoffs between PrivateGPT’s performance and privacy guarantees.

A. Performance Comparison of Local Models

PrivateGPT uses smaller LLMs optimized for local use over raw performance.

In benchmarks, a 13B parameter LLM like GPT-4All is slower at query generation compared to public APIs like GPT-3.5 Turbo.

But optimization tricks can help narrow the performance gap with public models.

B. Evaluating Trade-offs Between Performance and Privacy

Generally, models with more parameters, data, and compute provide better performance.

But larger models require contacting external APIs and transmitting user data. This introduces privacy risks and reliance on internet connectivity.

PrivateGPT opts for “good enough” performance with strong privacy guarantees. But users wanting high performance may find tradeoffs challenging.

C. Improving Performance with Alternative Models

PrivateGPT can leverage different local LLMs like LlamaCpp. Exploring optimized and quantized models can also boost performance.

Distilling public LLMs into smaller student models specialized on the user’s documents may also improve relevance.

As local LLM tech matures, there will be more avenues for enhancing private QA performance.

VII. Limitations and Future Improvements

PrivateGPT has some key limitations currently, but is actively being developed.

A. Limitations of PrivateGPT

Some current limitations include:

  • Relatively slow query generation time
  • Limited customizability and control over answers
  • No support for ingesting audio, images, etc.
  • Not optimized for mobile or web deployment
  • Requires technical expertise to set up

As an early research project, PrivateGPT still has room to improve.

B. Future Development and Enhancements

Future development work on PrivateGPT could include:

  • Support for more modalities beyond text
  • Simplifying setup and configuration
  • Alternative vector stores for faster indexing
  • Specialized distillation techniques to boost accuracy
  • Deployment to edge devices like mobiles and IoT hardware

The project maintainers are actively expanding PrivateGPT’s capabilities.

VIII. Conclusion

A. Recap of PrivateGPT’s Features

In summary, PrivateGPT provides:

  • Private offline question answering using local documents
  • Powerful semantic search through vector embeddings
  • Access to large language models like GPT-4All in a local package
  • Avoidance of privacy risks associated with public QA APIs

B. Encouraging Privacy-Focused Solutions for QA

PrivateGPT represents an important step towards privacy-preserving AI. As LLMs continue advancing, local solutions like PrivateGPT will only grow in relevance.

Hopefully projects like PrivateGPT will encourage greater focus on privacy in AI/ML, providing utility without compromising user rights. Keeping data local and minimal demonstrates that utility and privacy can coexist.

IX. References

A. Links to Relevant Repositories and Resources

  • PrivateGPT GitHub Repo:
  • GPT-4All Repo:
  • LlamaCpp Repo:
  • LangChain Repo:
  • Chroma Repo:

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