Machine Learning – Day 1

So I made it in on time for the first day of my Machine Learning course. The train was fantastic, particularly in comparison to the tiny cattle carriage that I ended up last Wednesday. Tip of the day – even on the same routes, not all trains are equal!

After the usual stop at the butty shop for a sausage and egg sandwich plus a coffee, I was in room 2.15 and ready for action.

So what’s Machine Learning then? Sounds very Skynet and The Matrix, doesn’t it? Dr. Gavin Brown started out explaining how ML is a subset of the field of Artificial Intelligence, which focuses on software that can analyse and adapt to the underlying patterns in the information it sees.

Other areas under the AI banner include reasoning, robotics and vision, to name but a few. This breakdown of the big, amorphous ‘thinking machines’ field as it was in the 60s into these sub-areas is why we have made huge leaps forward in the field since the past couple of decades.

What progress? Today, Machine Learning technology finds use everywhere – some examples are the Amazon online store (selecting your recommended stuff), tuning computer games, filtering spam emails and fraud detection in banking. If you’d like to know more about the motivation behind studying this stuff, you can check out these introductory slides.

The format for this module is very different to the Semi-Structured Data and the Web module. It’s still every Tuesday for five weeks, but there are no full days of lectures. Instead , the mornings are lectures and the afternoons are lab sessions.

Assessment is also different – there’s still an exam, but the coursework consists of assessed verbal lab reports for 20% and a project for 30%. The exam counts 50%. Whereas in the last module, we were assigned to groups of two and much of the coursework was largely joint in nature, this time it’s all individual work.

The labs use a matrix-based programming language called Matlab. Takes a bit of getting used to, but usable enough when you start to get the hang of it.

Day 1 covered terminology, the ‘Perceptron’ algorithm (will find a dividing line between two classes of data, if one exists) and Support Vector Machines (tries to find the ‘best’ such line, using hairy maths). If you’re interested in knowing more, Googling for ‘Machine Learning’ and these terms will find papers, communities and video talks and lectures. It looks like a really active area of research.

I get the feeling the focus is to be on understanding what’s going on more than any implementation details. That’s a good and a bad thing for me – I know implementation, and you can largely tell if you’ve got an implementation functionally correct by whether it does what it’s supposed to do.

This time it might be a bit less clear cut whether I’m right or wrong before I get to the assessment phase!

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