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What is machine learning?

Machine learning is the idea that there are generic algorithms that can tell you something interesting about a set of data without you having to write any custom code specific to the problem. Instead of writing code, you feed data to the generic algorithm and it builds its own logic based on the data.

For example, one kind of algorithm is a classification algorithm. It can put data into different groups. The same classification algorithm used to recognize handwritten numbers could also be used to classify emails into spam and not-spam without changing a line of code. It’s the same algorithm but it’s fed different training data so it comes up with different classification logic.

This machine learning algorithm is a black box that can be re-used for lots of different classification problems.

“Machine learning” is an umbrella term covering lots of these kinds of generic algorithms.

Two kinds of Machine Learning Algorithms

You can think of machine learning algorithms as falling into one of two main categories — supervised learning and unsupervised learning. The difference is simple, but really important.

Supervised Learning

Let’s say you are a real estate agent. Your business is growing, so you hire a bunch of new trainee agents to help you out. But there’s a problem — you can glance at a house and have a pretty good idea of what a house is worth, but your trainees don’t have your experience so they don’t know how to price their houses.

To help your trainees (and maybe free yourself up for a vacation), you decide to write a little app that can estimate the value of a house in your area based on it’s size, neighborhood, etc, and what similar houses have sold for.

So you write down every time someone sells a house in your city for 3 months. For each house, you write down a bunch of details — number of bedrooms, size in square feet, neighborhood, etc. But most importantly, you write down the final sale price: