Originally published on
The singularity is near, or maybe we’re already in it. Whatever the case is, machine learning and big data will have a tremendous influence on our society. The machine minds are coming online, and you had better learn to adapt if you want to succeed.
But what are big data and machine learning? Keep reading to find out.
Big Data And Machine Learning
Computers have certain capacities. They have a memory to store information. They have computational power, with some machines performing more “flops” per second than others.
What happens when these machines face such a large amount of data that traditional techniques of analysis start to fail? That’s the world of big data, and it’s a world we’re living in now.
The Last Polymath
Thomas Young was a physicist who lived from 1773-1829 in London. According to Andrew Robinson in his book The Last Man Who Knew Everything, Young was the world’s last true polymath.
You might be a smart person, but we know in our modern world that you have to be a specialist to survive. No one is a jack-of-all-trades anymore.
The world has become too complex for humans to even try to know everything. That’s what big data is: It’s the realization that there exist piles of data where traditional human methods of analysis fail. The world is too complicated for the human mind to make sense of every part of it. This presents a serious challenge and a tremendous opportunity for enterprising people who can apply automate techniques to help solve problems.
A simple example is the stock market. You can look at all sorts of information about the stock market, and once in a while you might come up with a good trade, but you can’t possibly keep up with computerized trading platforms that execute thousands of trades per second. It’s just too much information for your mind to process.
You need a computerized solution to take in all the information that is relevant to the problem.
Why Is Machine Learning Important?
That’s where machine learning comes in. Machine learning is a field that combines artificial intelligence, computer programming, business and philosophy all in one.
But what is it? When your eyes take in information (say, a charging water buffalo is running at you), your mind processes the data and makes a decision (get out of the way!). Machine learning is about computers taking in huge amounts of data and solving for the best outcome.
Machine learning is a way for humans to solve problems without actually knowing how to solve them or why a particular approach works. Machines can try out every possible choice and do it very fast. If there are a million options but only one of them is correct, computers can simulate all million events and systematically determine the correct outcome.
In the movie War Games, the Pentagon trusts an AI with running nuclear simulations against the Soviet Union. It tries every possible combination of potential attacks before coming up with the answer: “The only way to win a thermonuclear war is not to play.”
That movie was too idealistic for its time. 1980s AIs couldn’t possibly come up with a conclusion that sophisticated. But machine learning in 2018 really can solve serious problems, especially for business and culture.
Let’s say you are a major product distributor. You sell hammers on a global scale. The question is, “Should we build another hammer factory?” How do you answer such a question?
One approach would be to take a giant pile of data — say, 50 million credit card receipts — and try to guess if more people are buying hammers or fewer people are buying hammers. But how can you do this? Analyzing 50 million credit card records is going to take more than several lifetimes to do!
Machine learning and big data can solve this problem of hammers. Or at least they can point us in the right direction. There are all sorts of problems like this in the world, and big data and machine learning are beginning to sort them out.
GDPR And The Threat Of Over-Regulation
In 2018, the European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation, which has caused quite a stir in the software development community. Many bloggers have pointed out the GDPR seems to make certain types of machine learning illegal. The jury is out about how regulation and machine learning will come together in the future.
Everyone wants to be safe, and no one likes the idea of data about them floating around and getting into the wrong hands. But there is a real danger of political regulation missing the point when it comes to data. One concept that GDPR puts into play is the idea that you own the data about you and that you should be able to request it only be used for the purposes that it was collected. Sounds good, right?
Well, maybe, but with machine learning, computers can identify people in unusual ways that aren’t readily apparent. There is a danger of a false sense of security about “your” data. Machine learning applications may be able to detect things about you that you might not otherwise understand.
This can be a good thing, and there are legitimate security reasons for governments to use machine learning analytics to detect security threats. Imagine a world where you could purchase explosives and then claim that no one could use that information to figure out who blew up a building! This is ridiculous, but you can see that our society hasn’t absorbed all the implications of big data and machine learning yet.
The Information Age
Let’s face it: The world is a confusing place! There is a universe of data out there, and humanity is developing the technical tools to deal with it.
For better or worse, we live in the age of information and data. No one knows where it’s going, but we’re all going to get there together.