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Data Mining Practical Machine Learning Tools and Techniques
By Ian H. Witten Eibe Frank Mark A. Hall
MORGAN KAUFMANN Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter One What's It All About?
Human in vitro fertilization involves collecting several eggs from a woman's ovaries, which, after fertilization with partner or donor sperm, produce several embryos. Some of these are selected and transferred to the woman's uterus. The challenge is to select the "best" embryos to use—the ones that are most likely to survive. Selection is based on around 60 recorded features of the embryos—characterizing their morphology, oocyte, and follicle, and the sperm sample. The number of features is large enough to make it difficult for an embryologist to assess them all simultaneously and correlate historical data with the crucial outcome of whether that embryo did or did not result in a live child. In a research project in England, machine learning has been investigated as a technique for making the selection, using historical records of embryos and their outcome as training data.
Every year, dairy farmers in New Zealand have to make a tough business decision: which cows to retain in their herd and which to sell off to an abattoir. Typically, one-fifth of the cows in a dairy herd are culled each year near the end of the milking season as feed reserves dwindle. Each cow's breeding and milk production history influences this decision. Other factors include age (a cow nears the end of its productive life at eight years), health problems, history of difficult calving, undesirable temperament traits (kicking or jumping fences), and not being pregnant with calf for the following season. About 700 attributes for each of several million cows have been recorded over the years. Machine learning has been investigated as a way of ascertaining what factors are taken into account by successful farmers—not to automate the decision but to propagate their skills and experience to others.
Life and death. From Europe to the Antipodes. Family and business. Machine learning is a burgeoning new technology for mining knowledge from data, a technology that a lot of people are starting to take seriously.
1.1 DATA MINING AND MACHINE LEARNING
We are overwhelmed with data. The amount of data in the world and in our lives seems ever-increasing—and there's no end in sight. Omnipresent computers make it too easy to save things that previously we would have trashed. Inexpensive disks and online storage make it too easy to postpone decisions about what to do with all this stuff—we simply get more memory and keep it all. Ubiquitous electronics record our decisions, our choices in the supermarket, our financial habits, our comings and goings. We swipe our way through the world, every swipe a record in a database. The World Wide Web (WWW) overwhelms us with information; meanwhile, every choice we make is recorded. And all of these are just personal choices—they have countless counterparts in the world of commerce and industry. We could all testify to the growing gap between the generation of data and our understanding of it. As the volume of data increases, inexorably, the proportion of it that people understand decreases alarmingly. Lying hidden in all this data is information—potentially useful information—that is rarely made explicit or taken advantage of.
This book is about looking for patterns in data. There is nothing new about this. People have been seeking patterns in data ever since human life began. Hunters seek patterns in animal migration behavior, farmers seek patterns in crop growth, politicians seek patterns in voter opinion, and lovers seek patterns in their partners' responses. A scientist's job (like a baby's) is to make sense of data, to discover the patterns that govern how the physical world works and encapsulate them in theories that can be used for predicting what will happen in new situations. The entrepreneur's job is to identify opportunities—that is, patterns in behavior that can be turned into a profitable business—and exploit them.
In data mining, the data is stored electronically and the search is automated—or at least augmented—by computer. Even this is not particularly new. Economists, statisticians, forecasters, and communication engineers have long worked with the idea that patterns in data can be sought automatically, identified, validated, and used for prediction. What is new is the staggering increase in opportunities for finding patterns in data. The unbridled growth of databases in recent years, databases for such everyday activities as customer choices, brings data mining to the forefront of new business technologies. It has been estimated that the amount of data stored in the world's databases doubles every 20 months, and although it would surely be difficult to justify this figure in any quantitative sense, we can all relate to the pace of growth qualitatively. As the flood of data swells and machines that can undertake the searching become commonplace, the opportunities for data mining increase. As the world grows in complexity, overwhelming us with the data it generates, data mining becomes our only hope for elucidating hidden patterns. Intelligently analyzed data is a valuable resource. It can lead to new insights, and, in commercial settings, to competitive advantages.
Data mining is about solving problems by analyzing data already present in databases. Suppose, to take a well-worn example, the problem is fickle customer loyalty in a highly competitive marketplace. A database of customer choices, along with customer profiles, holds the key to this problem. Patterns of behavior of former customers can be analyzed to identify distinguishing characteristics of those likely to switch products and those likely to remain loyal. Once such characteristics are found, they can be put to work to identify present customers who are likely to jump ship. This group can be targeted for special treatment, treatment too costly to apply to the customer base as a whole. More positively, the same techniques can be used to identify customers who might be attracted to another service the enterprise provides, one they are not presently enjoying, to target them for special offers that promote this service. In today's highly competitive, customer-centered, service-oriented economy, data is the raw material that fuels business growth—if only it can be mined.
Data mining is defined as the process of discovering patterns in data. The process must be automatic or (more usually) semiautomatic. The patterns discovered must be meaningful in that they lead to some advantage, usually an economic one. The data is invariably present in substantial quantities.
And how are the patterns expressed? Useful patterns allow us to make nontrivial predictions on new data. There are two extremes for the expression of a pattern: as a black box whose innards are effectively incomprehensible, and as a transparent box whose construction reveals the structure of the pattern. Both, we are assuming, make good predictions. The difference is whether or not the patterns that are mined are represented in terms of a structure that can be examined, reasoned about, and used to inform future decisions. Such patterns we call structural because they capture the decision structure in an explicit way. In other words, they help to explain something about the data.
Now, again, we can say what this book is about: It is about techniques for finding and describing structural patterns in data. Most of the techniques that we cover have developed within a field known as machine learning. But first let us look at what structural patterns are.
Describing Structural Patterns
What is meant by structural patterns? How do you describe them? And what form does the input take? We will answer these questions by way of illustration rather than by attempting formal, and ultimately sterile, definitions. There will be plenty of examples later in this chapter, but let's examine one right now to get a feeling for what we're talking about.
Look at the contact lens data in Table 1.1. It gives the conditions under which an optician might want to prescribe soft contact lenses, hard contact lenses, or no contact lenses at all; we will say more about what the individual features mean later. Each line of the table is one of the examples. Part of a structural description of this information might be as follows:
If tear production rate = reduced then recommendation = none Otherwise, if age = young and astigmatic = no then recommendation = soft
Structural descriptions need not necessarily be couched as rules such as these. Decision trees, which specify the sequences of decisions that need to be made along with the resulting recommendation, are another popular means of expression.
This example is a very simplistic one. For a start, all combinations of possible values are represented in the table. There are 24 rows, representing three possible values of age and two values each for spectacle prescription, astigmatism, and tear production rate (3 × 2 × 2 × 2 = 24). The rules do not really generalize from the data; they merely summarize it. In most learning situations, the set of examples given as input is far from complete, and part of the job is to generalize to other, new examples. You can imagine omitting some of the rows in the table for which the tear production rate is reduced and still coming up with the rule
If tear production rate = reduced then recommendation = none
This would generalize to the missing rows and fill them in correctly. Second, values are specified for all the features in all the examples. Real-life datasets invariably contain examples in which the values of some features, for some reason or other, are unknown—for example, measurements were not taken or were lost. Third, the preceding rules classify the examples correctly, whereas often, because of errors or noise in the data, misclassifications occur even on the data that is used to create the classifier.
Now that we have some idea of the inputs and outputs, let's turn to machine learning. What is learning, anyway? What is machine learning? These are philosophical questions, and we will not be too concerned with philosophy in this book; our emphasis is firmly on the practical. However, it is worth spending a few moments at the outset on fundamental issues, just to see how tricky they are, before rolling up our sleeves and looking at machine learning in practice.
Our dictionary defines "to learn" as
To get knowledge of something by study, experience, or being taught.
To become aware by information or from observation
To commit to memory
To be informed of or to ascertain
To receive instruction
These meanings have some shortcomings when it comes to talking about computers. For the first two, it is virtually impossible to test whether learning has been achieved or not. How do you know whether a machine has got knowledge of something? You probably can't just ask it questions; even if you could, you wouldn't be testing its ability to learn but its ability to answer questions. How do you know whether it has become aware of something? The whole question of whether computers can be aware, or conscious, is a burning philosophical issue.
As for the last three meanings, although we can see what they denote in human terms, merely committing to memory and receiving instruction seem to fall far short of what we might mean by machine learning. They are too passive, and we know that computers find these tasks trivial. Instead, we are interested in improvements in performance, or at least in the potential for performance, in new situations. You can commit something to memory or be informed of something by rote learning without being able to apply the new knowledge to new situations. In other words, you can receive instruction without benefiting from it at all.
Excerpted from Data Mining by Ian H. Witten Eibe Frank Mark A. Hall Copyright © 2011 by Elsevier Inc. . Excerpted by permission of MORGAN KAUFMANN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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