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Machine Learning, What is Machine Learning and How it Works
Editorial   Machine Learning

What is Machine Learning?

What is machine learning? Image illustrates how a convolutional neural network operates

Learn what is machine learning, how it works, and its importance in five minutes

Who should read this article?

Anyone curious who wants a straightforward and accurate overview of what machine learning is, about how it works, and its importance. We go through each of the pertinent questions raised above by slicing technical definitions from machine learning pioneers and industry leaders to present you with a basic, simplistic introduction to the fantastic, scientific field of machine learning.

A glossary of terms can be found at the bottom of the article, along with a small set of resources for further learning, references, and disclosures.

What is machine learning?

Computer Scientist and machine learning pioneer Tom M. Mitchell Portrayed | Source: Machine Learning, McGraw Hill, 1997, Tom M. Mitchell [2]

The scientific field of machine learning (ML) is a branch of artificial intelligence, as defined by Computer Scientist and machine learning pioneer [1] Tom M. Mitchell: “Machine learning is the study of computer algorithms that allow computer programs to automatically improve through experience [2].”

An algorithm can be thought of as a set of rules/instructions that a computer programmer specifies, which a computer can process. Simply put, machine learning algorithms learn by experience, similar to how humans do. For example, after having seen multiple examples of an object, a compute-employing machine learning algorithm can become able to recognize that object in new, previously unseen scenarios.

How does machine learning work?


How does machine learning work? ~ Yann LeCun, Head of Facebook AI Research | Source: Youtube [3]

In the video above [3], Head of Facebook AI Research, Yann LeCun, simply explains how machine learning works with easy-to-follow examples. Machine learning utilizes various techniques to intelligently handle large and complex amounts of information to make decisions and/or predictions.

In practice, the patterns that a computer (machine learning system) learns can be very complicated and difficult to explain. Consider searching for dog images on Google search — as seen in the image below, Google is incredibly good at bringing relevant results, yet how does Google search achieve this task? In simple terms, Google search first gets a large number of examples (image dataset) of photos labeled “dog” — then the computer (machine learning system) looks for patterns of pixels and patterns of colors that help it guess (predict) if the image queried it is indeed a dog.

Query on Google Search for “dog” | Source: Google Search

At first, Google’s computer makes a random guess of what patterns are reasonable to identify a dog’s image. If it makes a mistake, then a set of adjustments are made for the computer to get it right. In the end, such collection of patterns learned by a large computer system modeled after the human brain (deep neural network), that once is trained, can correctly identify and bring accurate results of dog images on Google search, along with anything else that you could think of — such process is called the training phase of a machine learning system.

Machine learning system looking for patterns between dog and cat images [5]

Imagine that you were in charge of building a machine learning prediction system to try and identify images between dogs and cats. As we explained above, the first step would be to gather a large number of labeled images with “dog” for dogs and “cat” for cats. Second, we would train the computer to look for patterns on the images to identify dogs and cats, respectively.

Trained machine learning system capable of identifying cats or dogs. [5]

Once the machine learning model has been trained [7], we can throw at it (input) different images to see if it can correctly identify dogs and cats. As seen in the image above, a trained machine learning model can (most of the time) correctly identify such queries.

Why is machine learning important?

“Just as electricity transformed almost everything 100 years ago, today I actually have a hard time thinking of an industry that I don’t think AI will transform in the next several years.” ~ Andrew Ng | Source: Stanford Business Graduate School [4]

Machine learning is incredibly important nowadays. First, because it can solve complicated real-world problems in a scalable way, second, because it has disrupted a variety of industries within the past decade [9], and continues to do so in the future, as more and more industry leaders and researchers are specializing in machine learning, along taking what they have learned to continue with their research and/or develop machine learning tools to impact their own fields positively. Third, artificial intelligence has the potential to incrementally add 16% or around $ 13 trillion to the US economy by 2030 [18]. The rate in which machine learning is causing positive impact is already surprisingly impressive [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16], which have been successful thanks to the dramatic change in data storage and computing processing power [17] — as more people are increasingly becoming involved, we can only expect it to continue with this route and continue to cause amazing progress in different fields [6].


The author would like to thank Anthony Platanios, Doctoral Researcher with the Machine Learning Department at Carnegie Mellon University, for constructive criticism, along with editorial comments in preparation of this article.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not represent the views of Carnegie Mellon University, nor other companies (directly or indirectly) associated with the author(s). These writings do not intend to be final products, yet rather a reflection of current thinking, along with being a catalyst for discussion and improvement.

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[1] For pioneering contributions and leadership in the methods and applications of machine learning. | “Prof. Tom M. Mitchell.” National Academy of Engineering. Retrieved October 2, 2011.

[2] Machine Learning Definition | Tom M. Mitchell| McGraw-Hill Science/Engineering/Math; (March 1, 1997), Page 1 |

[3] How does Machine Learning work? | Yann LeCun | Youtube |

[4] Andrew Ng: Why AI is the New Electricity | Shana Lynch | Stanford Business |

[5] Breaking it down: A Q&A on machine learning | Google |

[6] In Ten Years: The Future of AI and ML | Foursquare |

[7] Training ML Models | Amazon Web Services |

[8] Machine learning models training process | Amazon Web Services |

[9] 5 Industries Machine Learning is Disrupting Right Now | Disruption, Inc.|

[10] Facebook Has Released a Machine Learning Tool to Help Engineers Code | DesignNews |

[11] Lithium-ion Battery Book Written by Machine Learning Algorithm | ChemistryWorld |

[12] Machine Learning Algorithm Predicts Who Will Survive Game of Thrones | VW |

[13] Machine Learning is Making Pesto Even More Delicious | MIT Technology Review |

[14] Machine learning generated artwork auctions off for $ 432,500 | Data-Driven Investor |

[15] How machine learning will fundamentally change the lives of healthcare providers | Radiology Business |

[16] Google’s AI is better at spotting advanced breast cancer than pathologists | MIT Technology Review |

[17] Visualizing the Trillion-Fold Increase in Computing Power | Visual Capitalist |

[18] The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on The World Economy | The Wall Street Journal | Intelligence in the economy | PWC |

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