What’s the Difference Between AI and Machine Learning?

3 min read

There is a lot of excitement behind these two topics, so this serves as a quick guide on what they are and what’s the difference.

Artificial Intelligence

The term Artificial Intelligence was coined by John McCarthy, a PhD in mathematics, who described the field as the “science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs.” This is a very broad definition; Most experts will accept a definition that describes AI in some way as programs that learn and/or can do problem-solving. Machine learning is one of the subdomains of AI. There are other subdomains of AI, such as ontology creation (which seeks to create a taxonomy of a subject), and common sense reasoning (you enter your kitchen and see a drawer open, you infer that someone opened the drawer). The reason these other fields of AI haven’t gained as much popularity as machine learning is that they have been more difficult to develop, reasonably simple models work well for ML, and ML has already been generating profit.

Machine Learning

Machine learning is about the creation of mathematical models, that self-optimize their variables (usually called parameters) for a given task. These models are self-optimized on a set of data called a training set and then applied to the real world. Some of these models have existed longer than computers, but with computers, we are now able to store more data, perform calculations much faster, apply the trained ML models to new data. There are three subdomains of ML, each with different methods of development and use.

Supervised Learning

In supervised learning, we try to predict a specific outcome. This outcome can be discrete (Will a person make a purchase? or Hot Dog or Not Hot Dog?) or continuous (How much will this house be sold for? What will the share price of this stock be in 1 month?). In supervised learning we measure error in some way and seek to minimize it.


Regression is when we try to predict a value from a continuous spectrum. The simplest example of this is linear regression, which draws a straight line through your data points. In this example the mathematical model we made is y = m*x + b and the self-optimization is applied to the m and b parameters. Our predictions for y-values at any given x-value can be found in the red line. A measurement of error here is distance between each blue point and the red line.


Classification is the prediction of a discrete value, as the name implies we try to classify data points into two groups. For example you can predict the probability someone survived the Titanic with a machine learning model called a decision tree (shown below). Here we try to optimize the accuracy of the model, meaning the percent of time our model was correct in its prediction.


Unsupervised Learning

Unlike supervised learning, unsupervised learning does not have a correct answer that you can optimize for. Unsupervised learning is usually used to create a cluster of data points. For example your credit card company may look at your spending habits and measure how different the data points (your purchases) are from each other. In this case the differences could be measured by time of day, geo-location, and store type. With some purchase history (training data), the credit card company could classify a $200 purchase from your account at 4:00 AM at a bar in another country as far from normal. Since we do not have a list of events that are fraud and not fraud we can’t use a model from supervised learning, we can only classify things as ordinary and out of the ordinary.

Reinforcement Learning

The objective in reinforcement learning is for an algorithm to maximize a reward. The most popular use of reinforcement learning in the news is self-driving cars. Here, the algorithm that runs the car gets a reward for a few things like not crashing the car, getting you to your destination, and minimizing the trips length in time. In reinforcement learning, the algorithm is trained in a simulation or game, where it tests things out and learns what maximizes its reward function, then it gets applied to the real world. Supervised and unsupervised learning models have been in use for a while, but RL is now getting more attention.

The the 7th century board game Go was once considered impossible to beat. Unlike a game like chess, where IBM’s Deep Blue was able to defeat Grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1996, Go has many times more potential actions a player can take on each turn. This made it impossible to use the traditional methods of machine learning used in chess on Go. DeepMind’s reinforcement learning program AlphaGo was finally able to win against a human professional in 2015 without a handicap. Similarly, competitions like AWS DeepRacer and Kaggle’s Connect X are helping to increase the numbers of RL practitioners. As we get better at winning these sorts of games, we will learn optimization methods that can be applied to wider fields like robotics.

Brandon Walker Brandon Walker is a Data Scientist at IBM where he assists clients with their adoption of Artificial Intelligence on the cloud. Brandon is passionate about closing the skills gap in data science and bringing clarity to the black box of AI for those that are not AI practitioners.

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