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Machine Learning: What Is It, Why Does It Matter, and Where Is It Going?

Seventy-six percent of companies surveyed plan to prioritize machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) deployments in 2021. Despite increased uptake, however, there is still a great deal of confusion surrounding these advanced concepts. In order to understand how organizations hope to leverage ML and AI in their technology initiatives, it’s helpful to take a step back and examine how they work and how they differ from each other.

What Is Machine Learning?

Machine learning uses statistics-driven algorithms to find patterns in massive amounts of data. These algorithms are designed to improve over time as they process more data to enable more accurate outputs. Machine learning is widely used to produce predictive recommendations — companies such as Google, Netflix, and Facebook collect data about user behaviors and feed it into machine learning algorithms which then produce targeted search results, movie recommendations, or advertisements. 

The key to machine learning success is data. The more data available to ML algorithms — and the higher-quality this data — the better they’ll be able to identify patterns in current datasets and apply them to new data sources.

Most machine learning methodologies fall under one of two broad categories:

  • Supervised Learning: Developers classify and label data to guide the algorithm’s inputs and outputs to ensure specific patterns are recognized. This method is time and resource intensive because it requires data scientists to capture, control, and curate data sources.
  • Unsupervised Learning: This approach provides ML algorithms with unlabeled and unclassified data and allows them to identify patterns based on unique data characteristics. Developers don’t interfere with the learning and pattern recognition process, instead evaluating the outputs for accuracy and modifying code as needed.

Why Does Machine Learning Matter?

Machine learning helps organizations leverage the massive amounts of data they’ve accumulated. This information is drawn from a variety of sources, including disparate forms and documents, data produced through customer transactions and service calls, and the ongoing operational data produced by staff as they interact with IT resources.

Thanks to both the rapid uptake of cloud computing and availability of large-scale data collection and analysis tools, these data volumes are increasing exponentially. As a result, aggregate assessment is now critical — companies need a way to rapidly and reliably derive patterns from available data, and apply these patterns to predictive action.

This is the evolving role of machine learning. By creating, testing, and deploying ML algorithms capable of rapid pattern analysis and application it’s possible for companies to benefit from this continual data influx rather than being constrained by the bounds of traditional data evaluation. To facilitate this process, many next-generation software tools and services are either equipped with built-in ML frameworks or are capable of interfacing with them.

Key Machine Learning Applications

The applications of machine learning are vast, but they tend to produce the best results when paired with existing processes that supplement human efforts or automate low-value, but labor-intensive, functions in the workplace. In effect, it has the potential to do almost anything a human mind can do, given enough time. 

Improved Data Capture

Capturing data from internal documents and customer-submitted forms can be cumbersome and time-consuming. It can also lead to wasted time and effort if data is incorrectly entered, duplicated, or accidentally deleted. By pairing machine learning tools with forms processing solutions like Accusoft’s FormSuite for Structured Forms, developers can build applications that identify, collect, and capture key data more efficiently and accurately. For example, a robot process automation (RPA) bot can be set up to receive extracted form data from FormSuite and then populate that information into the appropriate fields within an application. This not only accelerates forms processing workflows, but also greatly reduces the risk of data entry error. Properly implemented, automated data capture can act as a springboard for improved data insight and decision-making thanks to improved accuracy and consistency. 

Streamlined Content Creation

By combining machine learning algorithms and data sources with document editing tools, it’s possible to streamline key processes such as the creation of complex, compliance-bound content. One in-practice example is the use of Accusoft’s PrizmDoc Editor within the LegalSifter contract review and creation platform. By pairing its AI technology with PrizmDoc Editor’s document assembly capabilities, LegalSifter was able to quickly locate repetitive clauses and suggest replacements to create an automated contract creation experience for end users. 

What Is AI, and How Does It Relate to Machine Learning?

The terms artificial intelligence and machine learning are closely related and often used interchangeably, but they’re not identical.

Artificial intelligence refers to technologies that are capable of performing tasks like photo recognition or data pattern analysis with similar (or better) outcomes than human beings. Machine learning refers to the creation, testing, and refinement of the algorithms needed to support AI tools. In many ways, then, ML functions as a distinct process that helps make AI possible.

As noted by Toward Data Science, it often helps to think of AI, machine learning, and deep learning like a set of concentric rings. The smallest, inner ring is deep learning, which helps inform the middle ring of machine learning by providing layered neural network structures that improve the process of pattern recognition. The final, outside ring is AI, which depends on both deep and machine learning to deliver real-world results. 

Artificial intelligence tools can be broken down into two basic types:

  • Generalized AI: These tools are capable of solving problems bounded by a clear set of rules. Using the ML algorithms that underpin the larger AI structure, general AI applications can act on stimuli — such as a security alert from an IT network — and respond appropriately by creating and logging reports or looping in human agents. 
  • Narrow AI: These solutions are designed to solve specific, small-scale tasks. Building on the security example from above, a narrow AI application might see tools responding to specific threat events such as DDoS or ransomware attacks by deploying targeted, defensive responses that close active sessions, capture attack data, and prevent future connections from the same IP address. 

In practice, narrow AI tools can outperform their human counterparts in completing specific tasks, but are unable to translate this expertise into applicable action at scale. General tools come closer to mimicking human intelligence but are still a long way from replicating the depth and breadth of human thinking.

Limitations of AI

Much has been made about the potential of AI technologies to take the place of human staff, leading to a generalized sense of worry about the future of these tools at scale. Recent research, however, found that substantial confusion remains around not only the deployment of AI but the definition itself. In fact, one study found that 40 percent of AI startups in Europe were not actually using AI. In some cases, increasing market interest in AI tools encouraged the use of this term to help startups capture attention, in much the same way that rapid cloud adoption spurred the creation of a host of “cloud” companies that offered nothing of the sort.

Uncertainty around AI itself, however, also plays a role in this disconnect. Given the massive potential of AI to help companies solve both specific and generalized problems, the term can be applied in almost any context and made to fit almost any description.

Unlocking the Future

After spending many years confined to research projects and future-focused technology articles, both machine learning and artificial intelligence are making their way into the applications and software companies are deploying every day. As developers look ahead to building the next generation of technology solutions, they must not only think about how they can better leverage ML and AI principles, but also how to implement features that take advantage of them.

Accusoft’s collection of versatile SDK and API integrations deliver powerful viewing and image processing capabilities that help applications streamline workflows and enhance productivity. To learn more about how Accusoft can help you enhance the workflow in your machine learning or artificial intelligence projects, contact us today.