Machine Learning: Beware Enthusiasts Bearing Algorithms

Machine learning is not the emperor with no clothes. It’s a serious, important discipline that has a lot to offer many industries. I’m not anti-machine learning. What I think is that machine learning is a discipline with a lot of hype surrounding it at the moment. Eventually this hype will die away and what will be left are the serious practitioners developing useful, robust analyses with real implications. In the meantime, those working with data scientists or with data science would do well to beware enthusiasts bearing gifts.

There are a lot of parallels between the enthusiasm for machine learning right now the enthusiasm for Bayesian methods about ten years ago. Then, as now, there were a large number of enthusiasts, a moderate number of people producing serious, useful analysis and a misguided belief in some quarters that Bayesian methods were the solution to just about everything. Sound familiar?

Then as now, Bayesian methods weren’t the solution to everything, but they offered great solutions to many problems. Machine learning is the same.

If you’re not a data scientist or not familiar with machine learning methods, beware the enthusiast who believes machine learning solves just about everything. It’s one tool in a whole suite of options. A good data scientist understands it, a great data scientist uses the whole toolbox.

If your enthusiast can’t tell you what’s in the black box, or how their algorithm works then be cautious and keep asking questions. Sometimes, the initial confusion is because the data scientist and the businessperson may actually be speaking two different languages. Try not to be put off by that, often your friendly nerd is doing an internal parallel translation between geek speak and regular language. It doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing. When the statistician and the machine learning expert have to check in with each other regularly about terminology, this is definitely a “thing”!

Keep asking questions, keep listening to the answers: you’ll get a pretty good idea if this technique is being used by someone who knows how it works under the hood.