An Introduction to Machine Learning Theory and Its Applications

An Introduction to Machine Learning Theory and Its Applications

Curious about Machine Learning and its many applications? Learn the ins and outs of supervised and unsupervised machine learning in this Machine Learning tutorial.

Machine Learning (ML) is coming into its own, with a growing recognition that ML can play a key role in a wide range of critical applications, such as data mining, natural language processing, image recognition, and expert systems. ML provides potential solutions in all these domains and more, and is set to be a pillar of our future civilization.

The supply of able ML designers has yet to catch up to this demand. A major reason for this is that ML is just plain tricky. This Machine Learning tutorial introduces the basics of ML theory, laying down the common themes and concepts, making it easy to follow the logic and get comfortable with machine learning basics.

Machine learning tutorial illustration: This curious machine is learning machine learning, unsupervised.

What is Machine Learning?

So what exactly is “machine learning” anyway? ML is actually a lot of things. The field is quite vast and is expanding rapidly, being continually partitioned and sub-partitioned ad nauseam into different sub-specialties and types of machine learning.

There are some basic common threads, however, and the overarching theme is best summed up by this oft-quoted statement made by Arthur Samuel way back in 1959: “[Machine Learning is the] field of study that gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.”

And more recently, in 1997, Tom Mitchell gave a “well-posed” definition that has proven more useful to engineering types: “A computer program is said to learn from experience E with respect to some task T and some performance measure P, if its performance on T, as measured by P, improves with experience E.”

“A computer program is said to learn from experience E with respect to some task T and some performance measure P, if its performance on T, as measured by P, improves with experience E.” -- Tom Mitchell, Carnegie Mellon University

So if you want your program to predict, for example, traffic patterns at a busy intersection (task T), you can run it through a machine learning algorithm with data about past traffic patterns (experience E) and, if it has successfully “learned”, it will then do better at predicting future traffic patterns (performance measure P).

The highly complex nature of many real-world problems, though, often means that inventing specialized algorithms that will solve them perfectly every time is impractical, if not impossible. Examples of machine learning problems include, “Is this cancer?”, “What is the market value of this house?”, “Which of these people are good friends with each other?”, “Will this rocket engine explode on take off?”, “Will this person like this movie?”, “Who is this?”, “What did you say?”, and “How do you fly this thing?”. All of these problems are excellent targets for an ML project, and in fact ML has been applied to each of them with great success.

ML solves problems that cannot be solved by numerical means alone.

Among the different types of ML tasks, a crucial distinction is drawn between supervised and unsupervised learning:

  • Supervised machine learning: The program is “trained” on a pre-defined set of “training examples”, which then facilitate its ability to reach an accurate conclusion when given new data.
  • Unsupervised machine learning: The program is given a bunch of data and must find patterns and relationships therein.

We will primarily focus on supervised learning here, but the end of the article includes a brief discussion of unsupervised learning with some links for those who are interested in pursuing the topic further.

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