What is Learning?

An agent is learning if it improves its performance LEARNING on future tasks after making observations about the world. Learning can range from the trivial, as exhibited by jotting down a phone number, to the profound, as exhibited by Albert Einstein, who inferred a new theory of the universe. In this chapter, we will concentrate on one class of learning problem, which seems restricted but actually has vast applicability: from a collection of input–output pairs, learn a function that predicts the output for new inputs.

Why would we want an agent to learn?

If the design of the agent can be improved, why wouldn’t the designers just program in that improvement to begin with? There are three main reasons. First, the designers cannot anticipate all possible situations that the agent might find itself in. For example, a robot designed to navigate mazes must learn the layout of each new maze it encounters. Second, the designers cannot anticipate all changes over time; a program designed to predict tomorrow’s stock market prices must learn to adapt when conditions change from boom to bust. Third, sometimes human programmers have no idea how to program a solution themselves. For example, most people are good at recognizing the faces of family members, but even the best programmers are unable to program a computer to accomplish that task, except by using learning algorithms.

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