What Is Machine Learning?

Machine learning is a method of data analysis that automates analytical model building. Using algorithms that iteratively learn from data, machine learning allows computers to find hidden insights without being explicitly programmed where to look.


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Evolution of machine learning

Because of new computing technologies, machine learning today is not like machine learning of the past. It was born from pattern recognition and the theory that computers can learn without being programmed to perform specific tasks; researchers interested in artificial intelligence wanted to see if computers could learn from data. The iterative aspect of machine learning is important because as models are exposed to new data, they are able to independently adapt. They learn from previous computations to produce reliable, repeatable decisions and results. It’s a science that’s not new – but one that’s gaining fresh momentum.

While many machine learning algorithms have been around for a long time, the ability to automatically apply complex mathematical calculations to big data – over and over, faster and faster – is a recent development.

The heavily hyped, self-driving Google car? The essence of machine learning is one of the widely publicized examples of machine learning applications.

Why is machine learning important?

Resurging interest in machine learning is due to the same factors like growing volumes and varieties of available data, computational processing that is cheaper and more powerful, and affordable data storage have made more popular than ever.

All of these things mean it's possible to quickly and automatically produce models that can analyze bigger, more complex data and deliver faster, more accurate results – even on a very large scale. And by building precise models, an organization has a better chance of identifying profitable opportunities – or avoiding unknown risks.

What's required to create good machine learning systems?

  • Data preparation capabilities
  • Algorithms – basic and advanced
  • Automation and iterative processes.
  • Scalability
  • Ensemble modeling

Who's using it?

Most industries working with large amounts of data have recognized the value of machine learning technology. By gleaning insights from this data – often in real time – organizations are able to work more efficiently or gain an advantage over competitors.

Financial services

Banks and other businesses in the financial industry use machine learning technology for two key purposes: to identify important insights in data, and prevent fraud. The insights can identify investment opportunities, or help investors know when to trade. Data mining can also identify clients with high-risk profiles, or use cyber surveillance to pinpoint warning signs of fraud.

Government

Government agencies such as public safety and utilities have a particular need for machine learning since they have multiple sources of data that can be mined for insights. Analyzing sensor data, for example, identifies ways to increase efficiency and save money. Machine learning can also help detect fraud and minimize identity theft.

Healthcare

Machine learning is a fast-growing trend in the health care industry, thanks to the advent of wearable devices and sensors that can use data to assess a patient's health in real time. The technology can also help medical experts analyze data to identify trends or red flags that may lead to improved diagnoses and treatment.

Marketing and sales

Websites recommending items you might like based on previous purchases are using machine learning to analyze your buying history – and promote other items you'd be interested in. This ability to capture data, analyze it and use it to personalize a shopping experience (or implement a marketing campaign) is the future of retail.

Oil and gas

Finding new energy sources. Analyzing minerals in the ground. Predicting refinery sensor failure. Streamlining oil distribution to make it more efficient and cost-effective. The number of machine learning use cases for this industry is vast – and still expanding.

Transportation

Analyzing data to identify patterns and trends is key to the transportation industry, which relies on making routes more efficient and predicting potential problems to increase profitability. The data analysis and modelling aspects of machine learning are important tools to delivery companies, public transportation and other transportation organizations.


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Very basically, a machine learning algorithm is given a “teaching set” of data, and then asked to use that data to answer a question. For example, you might provide a computer a teaching set of photographs, some of which say, “this is a cat” and some of which say, “This is not a cat.” Then you could show the computer a series of new photos and it would begin to identify which photos were of cats.

Machine learning then continues to add to its teaching set. Every photo that it identifies — correctly or incorrectly — gets added to the teaching set, and the program effectively gets “smarter” and better at completing its task over time. It is, in effect, learning.