13 Ways Machine Learning Can Steer You Wrong

Applying machine learning and artificial intelligence to your decision-making can help your business stay competitive. But a lot can go wrong along the way. Without the proper checks and balances, machine learning efforts can spiral out of control, exposing your organization to risks. Here are 13 pitfalls to avoid.
Inaccurate Predictions
You Don't Know What You Don't Know
Algorithms Don't Align With Reality
Baked-In Bias
Bad Hires
Damage To The Bottom Line
False Assumptions
Irrelevant Recommendations
Garbage In, Garbage Out
Desperately Seeking Disruption
Unpredictable Outcomes
Blind Faith
Deceptive Simplicity

Succeeding in today's fast-paced business economy requires companies to harness data quickly and at scale. As the volume, velocity, and variety of data increase, it's becoming necessary to use machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to sift through all the incoming information, make sense of it, and accurately predict future business direction.

Getting machine learning right isn't an easy task, however. It takes the right expertise, the right tools, and the right data to achieve the promise of machine learning. Even with all of those factors in place, it's still easy to get it wrong.

"Machine learning gives us a very powerful set of techniques for making predictions, but it can also lead to disastrous results if you don't understand what your machine learning algorithm is doing," said Spencer Greenberg, a mathematician and founder of decision-making website, in an interview. "It is critical to study the algorithm once it has been trained, to understand how it is making its predictions, and whether what it is doing makes sense from a business perspective."

[Even the best intentions can go horribly wrong. Read 10 Ways to Doom Your Next Mobile App.]

Machine learning is sometimes viewed as a panacea to all business challenges. By failing to consider its realistic potential -- and serious limitations -- it's easy for anyone to misunderstand and misapply machine learning.

"[The] stream of publicity around machine learning milestones reached [by] the big players -- beating human opponents at board games, breakthroughs in medical screening and so on -- gives the impression of continuous, rapid progress, and underplays the frustrations and dead ends," said Monty Barlow, director of Machine Learning at global product development and technology consulting firm Cambridge Consultants, in an interview. "In practice, return on investment [from machine learning] can be late or never."

Organizations are using machine learning in tactical and strategic ways, such as making product recommendations or informing strategic decisions. While the risks of making an irrelevant product recommendation are relatively low, making consistently irrelevant recommendations may fuel customer churn.

Making an ill-informed strategic decision as a result of badly applied machine learning can have serious consequences for your company.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has endeavored to quantify the financial impact of big, strategic, data-driven decisions in terms of dollar and shareholder value. It has also attempted to understand the degree to which different industry sectors rely on machine intelligence.

"[In 2014], we asked people to quantify the decisions they're making, and it was in the hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of impact," said Dan DiFilippo, global and US Data & Analytics leader at PwC, in an interview.

"This time, we asked them to express it terms of shareholder value, and most people selected 5% – 50% [of shareholder value]. Even on the low side, 5% of the value of a big organization is something that will move the needle."

Suffice to say, there's a lot at stake. No matter where you are on the path to applying machine learning, it's worth knowing the pitfalls to avoid.

We've identified 13 key ways in which the misapplication of machine learning and artificial intelligence can lead your business astray. Once you've reviewed these, tell us about your own experiences. We'd love to hear from you in the comments section below.

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