Learning Machine Learning

Two years ago I was an absolute novice at machine learning: I had read around the subject a little bit, could probably rattle off a few of the buzzwords, and had some appreciation of the general idea, but there was no way I could have developed a predictive model beyond linear regression. I was somewhere near the peak of Mount Stupid (from a great chart by SMBC):

Fast forward to the present day – I’m just about escaping the local minimum on the other side. Although I definitely wouldn’t claim anything close to mastery of the subject, a few months ago I took a step back to look at my progress and realised that I was definitely not a beginner any longer: I had built a couple of extensive projects, created some educational resources, and even written a journal article (unpublished as of now) applying ML. I therefore think that I am in a reasonable place to share the mistakes I made when learning ML, so that other people don’t have to make them!

It is worth noting that two years is a very long time; I was far too occupied (with the army, among other things) to commit fully to machine learning, but I think that most people could achieve near-mastery in 6 months if they so pleased.

In any case, from the perspective of a fellow learner who has had a small head start, and without any guarantees of it being the most efficient way to learn the subject, I’m going to present some advice. The rough overview is as follows:

  1. Learn to code
  2. Learn the basics of ML
  3. Pick a subject you are interested in
  4. Pick an interesting algorithm, and dive deep
  5. Review your achievements

For each subsection, I’ll try to provide some resource recommendations, and some tips.

Learn to code

For better or worse, programming is basically a prerequisite for machine learning. It is true that there are some GUI environments, most notably Weka and the Azure ML studio, but users of these tools are definitely in the minority. Programming gives you far more control over the whole machine learning process. I know from experience that ‘control’ is often the last think a beginner wants, because with great power comes the responsibility to actually write functional code, but it’s honestly hard to appreciate ML without programming. The one exception I would cautiously make is if you have experience with statistical analysis (e.g in Excel), in which case Azure might not be a bad place to start.

For those new to programming, a natural question is what language to use. This is a big decision, but spending too long deciding will hold you back. I really recommend just picking python 3 and sticking with it: it has a very mature environment for machine learning, with simple syntax and an abundance of tutorials online. It has the added benefit of being a general-purpose language, so you can really do anything you want with it.

I can’t remember exactly how I learnt python (it was a long time ago): I recall it being a dark and uncomfortable time, probably because I tried to navigate my own way through. I suggest you choose one of the many tutorials available. Here are two suggestions

Some tips:

Learn the basics of ML

Machine learning is a very mathematical subject, and though it’s better if you can learn it rigorously (with all the maths), it’s not necessary at this stage. But be aware that you will need a firm grasp of your high school maths if you want to progress further.

One of the seemingly unanimous recommendations is Andrew Ng’s Coursera course. My honest opinion is that this is likely to put you off ML unless you are a very quick learner (and good at maths). I didn’t finish the course, and after giving up, I avoided ML for a long time. One of the problems is that he uses Octave/Matlab as a programming language, which nobody uses. That being said, the course does give amazing insight (provided you can follow the maths), and he covers many relevant algorithms. If you feel up to it, it may be worth following along with the videos but doing all of the assignments in python. Then you can compare your work with other people’s solutions on GitHub.

My personal recommendations are:


Pick a subject you are interested in

After acquiring the basic skills, it is critical to find a subject that you are interested in and to build a project. Machine learning is a widely applicable tool, and I’d wager that there’s an application of ML in whatever field you’re interested in.

Once you decide, it’s probably a good idea to look for a tutorial series on that particular topic. I was most interested in finance, so I followed an excellent youtube playlist from Sentdex, called Machine Learning for Investing.

At this stage, your goal is to build a fully working project, so that you come into contact with the whole machine learning stack, all the way from raw data to eventual predictions (and preferably some visualisations too). Performance isn’t the most important thing right now, though it would be nice if you can do better than random guessing :)


Pick an interesting algorithm, and dive deep

If you’ve followed the steps thus far, you should have a crude, but functional, project in a field that you are interested in. Now is the time to ascend to the next level, by really trying to understand what you are doing and improving your machine learning performance.

After you’ve done all of this, it may be that your performance has actually gotten worse (for example, if you’ve changed to a more relevant metric). This was the case for me, as I changed from accuracy to precision – precision is much more pertinent to stock predictions because it’s the false positives that lose you money. But at least I had a logically sound methodology off of which to base future endeavours.

Now, you should do a quick search on Google Scholar to see what algorithms are most successful in your field. For example, if you chose to deal with computer vision, you’d find that Convolutional Neural Networks are the de facto standard. Then, really hit the books – try to understand the algorithm in detail, to the point where you could recreate it from scratch. This naturally involves a lot of maths, but hopefully at this stage you’re excited enough about ML to weather it. You may find The Elements of Statistical Learning to be useful: it is a legendary textbook that basically defines the field of machine learning. Supplement this with alternative explanations and tutorials from youtube or stackexchange, and you will be in a good place. In particular, you should look out for the actual meaning of all of the different metaparameters. This is very important, because it will guide your future search for optimal metaparameters to increase your performance.

In my case, SVMs and neural networks were common in the literature on stock prediction, but I wasn’t too keen to proceed with them. I found in a more recent study that boosted decision trees were having quite a lot of success in a number of different fields, so I was interested to see how they would do in stock prediction. I’ve written a post on my investigation into boosted trees, so that you can get an idea about how deep I went into the subject. I also found the seminal academic papers to be illuminating, but you should probably leave them for last.

Once you understand the algorithm, you should be able to go back to your original project with fresh eyes, applying your new knowledge to increase performance. But even if your performance won’t increase, you’ll have a much better idea as to why.

Review your achievements

Although it is true that there is always more to learn about a subject, sometimes you do need to take a step back and acknowledge that you’ve come a long way. Look over your projects, your notes, and take some pride in what you have learnt.

After researching a lot into stock prediction and boosted decision trees, I noticed a gap in the literature – nobody had tried to apply gradient boosting to the markets. I ended up writing a paper, and was looking to publish it in Expert Systems with Applications before I became occupied with other things. But actually what I’m most proud of is an extensive tutorial I made, MachineLearningStocks, which is meant to help beginners get started with applying ML to stock prediction. I guess releasing the tutorial ‘completed the circle’ – after you learn enough about a topic, it starts being your job to propagate that knowledge to the next iteration of learners.

With that, I’ll conclude this post. Machine Learning is a subject that is not hard to pick up, but has a learning curve that steepens the further you get into it. Just being able to apply machine learning puts you ahead of most of the world. It is constantly evolving, with a startling amount of research released daily. But don’t let this put you off: with concerted effort and the right resources, it’s definitely feasible for you to start contributing to that expanding corpus in less than a year. I really think it would be worth the effort, but perhaps I’m biased.