What is Machine Learning? | Royal Society

Machine Learning

Many of the services we use every day rely on machine learning, a scientific field and powerful technology that enables machines to learn from data and improve themselves.

Machine learning is used in internet search engines, email filters that sift through spam, websites to make personalized recommendations, banking software to detect unusual transactions, and many apps on mobile phones such as voice recognition.

There are many other potential uses for this technology, some with higher stakes than others. Future developments could support the UK economy and have a huge impact on society. For example, machine learning could provide ready-to-use “personal assistants” to help manage our lives, dramatically improve our transport system through the use of autonomous vehicles, and dramatically improve our healthcare system by better diagnosing disease and personalising treatment. Machine learning can also be used for security applications, for example analysing email communications and internet usage. We need to consider the impact of these and other uses of this technology now, and act to ensure that its use benefits society.

Machine learning is distinct from, but overlaps with, some aspects of robotics (a robot is an example of hardware where machine learning algorithms can be used to make the robot act autonomously, for example) and artificial intelligence (AI) (a concept that has no agreed-upon definition, but machine learning is a way to achieve some degree of AI).

What is the Royal Society Project?

This transformative technology brings both opportunities and challenges, and raises social, legal and ethical questions. That's why the Royal Society is launching a project on machine learning, aiming to stimulate debate, raise awareness of machine learning, demonstrate its potential and highlight the opportunities and challenges it poses. Over the course of the project, we will engage with policy makers, academia, industry and the public.

The project will focus on current and near-future (5-10 years) applications of machine learning. The project will have a strong public participation element and a range of resources will be produced over the life of the project; details of these will also be posted on this webpage.

The project scope was developed by a core group of experts who met in the summer of 2015.

Who will inform you about this project?

This Royal Society project is led by a working group with a wide range of expertise.

Responses to our call for evidence (now closed) will also feed into the project.

Evidence gathering sessions and public events will be held throughout the life of the project.

What will come out of this project?

The project also produced evidence-based recommendations in a policy report for UK and EU policymakers, published in April 2017.

What is Machine Learning?

These videos, visualizations, and podcasts explain different aspects of machine learning in more detail.

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