Ways to think about machine learning

Benedict Evans: “We’re now four or five years into the current explosion of machine learning, and pretty much everyone has heard of it. It’s not just that startups are forming every day or that the big tech platform companies are rebuilding themselves around it – everyone outside tech has read the Economist or BusinessWeek cover story, and many big companies have some projects underway. We know this is a Next Big Thing.

Going a step further, we mostly understand what neural networks might be, in theory, and we get that this might be about patterns and data. Machine learning lets us find patterns or structures in data that are implicit and probabilistic (hence ‘inferred’) rather than explicit, that previously only people and not computers could find. They address a class of questions that were previously ‘hard for computers and easy for people’, or, perhaps more usefully, ‘hard for people to describe to computers’. And we’ve seen some cool (or worrying, depending on your perspective) speech and vision demos.

I don’t think, though, that we yet have a settled sense of quite what machine learning means – what it will mean for tech companies or for companies in the broader economy, how to think structurally about what new things it could enable, or what machine learning means for all the rest of us, and what important problems it might actually be able to solve.

This isn’t helped by the term ‘artificial intelligence’, which tends to end any conversation as soon as it’s begun. As soon as we say ‘AI’, it’s as though the black monolith from the beginning of 2001 has appeared, and we all become apes screaming at it and shaking our fists. You can’t analyze ‘AI’.

Indeed, I think one could propose a whole list of unhelpful ways of talking about current developments in machine learning. For example:

  • Data is the new oil
  • Google and China (or Facebook, or Amazon, or BAT) have all the data
  • AI will take all the jobs
  • And, of course, saying AI itself.

More useful things to talk about, perhaps, might be:

  • Automation
  • Enabling technology layers
  • Relational databases. …(More).