Machine Learning And How It Helps Researchers Make Scientific Discoveries Much Faster Researchers Arthur Mar and Jillian Buriak developed cost-effective plastic solar cells that can be printed like newspapers. Using machine learning, Mar’s research team was able to boost the efficiency of Buriak’s solar cell technology by 30 percent in just a few weeks.

“That was a big wake-up call for us,” said Buriak. “All kinds of scientific discoveries are starting to happen faster than they used to.”

Machine learning is accelerating discoveries in countless areas of research, and Mar and his team are among the University of Alberta’s many pioneers in the field.

They’re not ‘terminators’

Pop culture offers many ideas about what “” means, but to Mar it’s just a set of tools.

“Our kind of machine learning is not terminators,” he said with a laugh.

Machine learning sorts and categorizes complex sets of data to tease out useful information.

Mar explains: “If you needed help getting a heavy box off the top shelf at a store, you could analyze the people around you to see who would help. You could target people wearing the store uniform, and then you could rank them based on a relevant attribute like height. Machine learning will do similar clustering and ranking, but can handle a lot more information than any of us could process. It can also identify more relevant attributes—it could tell you that an employee’s height is less important than their access to a ladder, and rank accordingly.”

For Buriak’s , the machine was given years of experimental lab data and programmed to look for different design variables that could affect the efficiency of an organic solar cell.

“Using the traditional method of changing one variable at a time, we’d have needed thousands of experiments to screen all those possible combinations,” Buriak said. “The machine learning algorithm helped us understand which variables mattered most, and just 16 experiments later, we were on our way to systematically increasing the efficiency of solar cells in a dramatically accelerated fashion.”

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