Machine Learning 101 – Supervised and Unsupervised Learning

I teach Big Data & Data Science at several universities and I work in that field also. Since I wrote a lot here on Big Data itselve and there are now many young professionals deciding if they want to go for data science, I decided to write a short intro series to machine learning. After this intro, you should be capable of getting deeper into this topic and know where to start. To kick off the series, we’ll go over some basics of machine learning.

One of the main ideas behind that is to find patterns in data and make predictions on that data without the need to develop each and every use-case from scratch. Therefore, a certain number of algorithms are available. These algorithms can be “classified” by how they work. the main two principles (which then can also be spilt) are:

  • Supervised Learning
  • Unsupervised Learning
  • Semi-supervised Learning

With supervised learning, the algorithm learns basically by existing data and learning “from the past”. This means that there is basically a lot of learning data that allows the algorithm to find the patterns by learning from this data. This is also often called “a teacher”. It works closely to how we as humans learn: we get information from our parents, teachers and friends and combine this to make future predictions. Examples are:

  • Manufacturing: if several properties of a material were of specific properties, the quality was either good or bad (or maybe scaled from several numbers). Now, if we produce a new material and we look at the properties of the material, based on the existing data we have from former productions, we can say how the quality will be. Properties of a material might be: hardness, color, …
  • Banking: based on several properties of a potential borrower, we can predict if the person is capable of paying back the loan. This can be based on existing data of former customers and what the bank “learned” from them. A lot of different variables are calculated for that: income, montly liability to pay, education, job, …

With unsupervised learning we have no “teacher” available. The algorithms get data, and the algorithms try to find patterns in that. This can either be by clustering data (e.g. customer with high income, customer with low income, …) and make predictions based on that. If we look at our industries, this can be used for that:

  • Manufacturing: find anomalies in the production lines (e.g. the average output of units per hour was between 200 and 250, but on day D at time T, the output was only 20 units. The algorithm can cluster this into normal output and an anomaly that was detected.
  • Banking: normally, the customer would only spend money in his home country. Suddenly, he had high money transfers in a country that he normally isn’t in -> possibility of fraud.

Last, but not least, there is Semi supervised learning, which is a combination of both. In many machine learning projects, not all training data that is used for supervised learning is available, so values might need to get predicted. This can be done by combining supervised and unsupervised learning algorithms and then work with the “curated” data on it.

Now that we basically understand the 3 main concepts, we can continue with variations within these concepts and some statistical background in the next post.


I lead a team of Senior Experts in Data & Data Science as Head of Data & Analytics and AI at A1 Telekom Austria Group. I also teach this topic at various universities and frequently speak at various Conferences. In 2010 I wrote a book about Cloud Computing, which is often used at German & Austrian Universities. In my home country (Austria) I am part of several organisations on Big Data & Data Science.

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