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Preface

Preface

During my graduate school years I became acquainted with the field of machine learning, and in particular the field of pattern recognition. The focus of my work was on mathematical modeling and numerical simulations, but the ability to recognize patterns in a large volume of data had obvious applications in many fields. The years that followed brought me closer to the subject of machine learning than I ever imagined.

In 1999 I left academia and started working in industry. In one of my consulting projects, we were trying to identify the risk of heart failure for patients based (primarily) on their EKGs. In problems of that nature, an exact mathematical formulation is either unavailable or impractical to implement. Modeling work (our software) had to rely on methods that could adopt their predictive capability based on a given number of patient records, whose risk of heart failure was already diagnosed by a cardiologist. In other words, we were looking for methods that could "learn" from their input.

Meanwhile, during the '90s, a confluence of events had driven the rapid growth of a new industry. The web became ubiquitous! Abiding by Moore's law, CPUs kept getting faster and cheaper. RAM modules, hard disks, and other computer components followed the same trends of capability improvement and cost reduction. In tandem, the bandwidth of a typical network connection kept increasing at the same time that it became more affordable. Moreover, robust technologies for developing web applications were coming to life and the proliferation of open source projects on every aspect of software engineering was accentuating that growth. All these factors contributed to building the vast digital ecosystem that we today call the web.

Naturally, the first task for our profession—the software engineers and web developers of the world—was to establish the technologies that would allow us to build robust, scalable, and aesthetically appealing web applications. Thus, in the last decade a large effort was made to achieve these goals, and significant progress has been made. Of course, perfection is a destination not a state, so we still have room for improvement. Nevertheless, it seems that we're cruising along the plateau of productivity with respect to robustness, scalability, and aesthetic appeal. The era of internet application "plumbing" is more or less over. Mere data aggregation and simple user request/response models based on predetermined logic have reached a state of maturity.

Today, another wave of innovation can be found in certain applications and is passing through the slope of enlightenment fairly quickly. These applications are what we refer to in this book as intelligent applications. Unlike traditional applications, intelligent applications adjust their behavior according to their input, much like my modeling software had to predict the risk of heart failure based on the EKG.

Over the last five years, it became clear to me that a lot of the techniques that are used in intelligent applications aren't easily accessible to the vast majority of software professionals. In my opinion, there are primarily two reasons for that. The first is that the commercial potential of innovation in these areas can have huge financial rewards. It makes (financial) sense to protect the proprietary parts of specific applications and hide the critical details of the implementations. The second reason why the underlying techniques remained in obscurity for so long is that nearly all of them originated as scientific research and therefore relied on significant mathematical jargon. There's little that anyone can do about the first reason. But the amount of publicly available knowledge is so large that it raises the question: Is the second reason necessary? My short answer is a loud and emphatic "No!" For the long answer, you'll have to read the book!

I decided to write this book to demonstrate that a number of these techniques can be presented in the form of algorithms, without presuming much about the mathematical background of the reader. The goal of this book is to equip you with a number of techniques that will help you build intelligent behavior in your application, while assuming as little as possible with regard to mathematics. The code contains all the necessary mathematics in algorithmic form.

Initially, I was thinking of using a number of open source libraries for presenting the techniques. But most of these libraries are developed opportunistically and, quite often, without any intention to teach the underlying techniques. Thus, the code tends to become obscure and tedious to read, let alone understand! It was clear that the intended audience of my book would benefit the most from a clean, well-documented code base. At that juncture, Dmitry joined me and he wrote most of the code that you'll find in this book.

Slowly but surely, the number of books that cover this new and exciting area will grow. This book is only an introduction to a field that's already large and keeps growing rapidly. Naturally, the number of algorithms covered had to be limited and the explanations had to be concise. My objective was to select a number of topics and explain them well, rather than attempt to cover as much as possible with the risk of confusing you or simply creating a cookbook.

I hope that we have made a contribution to that end by doing the following four things:

  • Staying focused and working on clear examples

  • Using high-level scripts that capture the usage of the algorithms, as if you were inserting them in your own application

  • Helping you experiment with, and think about, the code through a large number of To Do items

  • Writing top-notch and legible code

So, grab your favorite hot beverage, sit back, and test drive some smart apps; they're here to stay!

Haralambos Marmanis

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