What is Machine Learning? A Beginner’s Guide

Article by Tom Serres

Learning is an activity or skill that you’ve probably seen a wide range of living things do. However, did you realize that learning isn’t necessarily a skill limited to living beings but one that machines can do, as well?
Machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence (AI) in which machines—computers— learn and improve based on analyzing data, with very little human intervention. Machine learning may sound like the stuff of science fiction but this technology is already being employed in many contexts today and it’s having an incredible impact on a huge range of industries and on society as we know it.

How Machine Learning Works

Machine learning is the process by which machines are able to increase their capacity and abilities by analyzing and finding patterns in data. When machines’ algorithms are fed data sets, they can learn from patterns they detect. Then, they can predict new patterns and predict future outcomes based on what they understand from the first algorithms.
Each time a machine encounters an algorithm, it “learns” from it to better understand and handle it the next time.

Why Does Machine Learning Matter?

So, there are machines that are really good at interpreting data and finding patterns in it. But, you might be wondering (especially if you’re not into computing or statistics): how does that affect my life? While machine learning seems like a process confined to computers, it has, in reality, shifted our world in significant ways.
First, machine learning allows humans to analyze huge data sets. In fact, machine learning allows computers to do this nearly instantaneously, which gives us insight into human behavior, economic patterns, and risks in a way that we’ve never been able to experience before.

Where Have I Encountered Machine Learning?

Machine learning is all around you. In fact, you benefit from it in many ways in your everyday life—probably in ways that you never imagined.
For example, machine learning is behind the facial recognition technology that allows you to tag friends in Facebook posts automatically. It’s also the key to Netflix’s recommendation engine, which finds patterns in what you watch and then recommends new content. Machine learning also handles pesky tasks like deciding whether an email is spam or a legitimate communication. Or, letting you know whether it might rain tomorrow, or whether you can expect a day of sunny skies.
Some other places you’ve probably enjoyed the outcome of machine learning include:
  • Search engines ranking results based on your predicted preferences
  • Your credit card bill, when a bank expects a fraudulent charge and notifies you about it
  • Doctors who prescribe you a new medicine based on its effectiveness with previous patients
Over the past several decades, we have learned to take advantage of the power of machine learning and are now able to enjoy its benefits without most of us even realizing it.

Pathway to a Better Future

Machine learning has the potential to improve a huge range of processes and activities from medical care  to manufacturing.
There are many startups and research outfits working with machine learning today, testing new possibilities for the technology. For example, companies like Figure Eight are creating training data that make machine learning more powerful than ever before, and organizations like Darktrace, who are committed to figuring out how to use the power of machine learning to enhance cyber security technology.
Ultimately, machine learning is a type of AI that will allow computers to program themselves. This will result in technology that can do much more than humans could ever program it to. And it will leave us with more time and energy to devote to uniquely human processes: like using our imagination for creativity, or fostering genuine connections with and caring for other people.