Ruth Thomson, Interim Director of Strategic Innovation sat down with Jelena, one of Mango’s machine learning experts.

Thanks Jelena for your time. It is an absolute pleasure to have this opportunity to discuss machine learning today. Tell me about your background with machine learning

I’ve been using machine learning for many years. I first started using machine learning as part of my PhD in Physics over 12 years ago using a neural net for mainly pattern recognition in particle physics. And I’ve been using it ever since in projects and for clients when it is the best tool for the job.

Because I’ve been using it for so long, I find it amusing that machine learning is now being marketed as a new thing. The algorithms and approaches have been around since the 1970s. The exciting thing is that we now have computers powerful enough to enable the greater use of machine learning to help improve decision making.

Now as a Senior Data Scientist at Mango, I use machine learning in our consultancy projects and I also train data scientists around the world in the world’s largest companies in how to use machine learning. Most recently, for example, I have been training analysts and data scientists at one the UK’s largest banks.

One thing I love is understanding how tools like machine learning can be used to drive business value. How has Mango helped clients use machine learning recently?

We’ve been using machine learning in a range of different companies recently. For example, one way has been to help our customers reduce the costs resulting from late payment of invoices and another is using machine learning to create better sales forecasts. It is a powerful tool, that for the right problem, can be very effective.

What advice would you give to organisations who want to gain value from machine learning?

Recognise that machine learning is one of a suite of advanced analytics tools you can use to drive value. The most important thing to do is to define the business problem or opportunity you have and then use machine learning if it is the most appropriate tool.

That is so interesting. It can be really easy to get drawn into the hype around machine learning. As someone who has used machine learning extensively over many years. What’s your opinion?

From my experience, the most dangerous misconception is that machine learning is an ultimate oracle. Businesses see all things that have been achieved and think that machine learning is the right tool for every situation. In reality, it is a useful tool but it needs to be applied in a smart way.

I totally agree. We have seen and heard of so many projects where machine learning was used, to great cost and investment, when a simpler and better solution could have been applied. This has happened where organisations have started with the answer – machine learning, rather than with the question – what business problem are we trying to solve?

Exactly. And another danger is that machine learning is being sold as a tool that you can use out of the box. Just press a button and the answer will appear. In reality that is so far from the truth and some businesses have had to find that out the hard way.

Is it fair to say that the businesses who are going to drive real business value are ones who have a clear focus on the question they are trying to answer with machine learning?

Yes. A smart business will have a clear business case and a clear question that is being answered with machine learning. Then look at whether machine learning is the appropriate tool to answer that question. Baring in mind that setting up a machine learning environment is not a cheap exercise and no business wants to waste money on tools that are not needed.

Another important area for businesses to consider is the data they have available. In machine learning, having the right data is critical. In many businesses, far more attention needs to be paid to the data available, the data quality and preparation to enable machine learning.

I feel we could talk about this topic for hours! In summary, if you could a message with businesses considering using machine learning, what would it be.

Machine learning is a powerful tool but it is only one of many tools you can use. It is also not a tool, yet, that can fully replace the data analysis process. Use it as part of an advanced analytics programme focused on driving business value.

Thanks Jelena.

If you’re an organisation considering using machine learning or improving your current use of machine learning, get in touch with us.