‘Transformational’ approach to machine learning could accelerate search for new disease treatments

woman standing in abstract lines representing machine learning

Researchers have developed a new approach to machine learning that ‘learns how to learn’ and out-performs current machine learning methods for drug design, which in turn could accelerate the search for new disease treatments.

The method, called transformational machine learning (TML), was developed by a team from the UK, Sweden, India and Netherlands. It learns from multiple problems and improves performance while it learns.

TML could accelerate the identification and production of new drugs by improving the machine learning systems which are used to identify them. The results are reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most types of machine learning (ML) use labelled examples, and these examples are almost always represented in the computer using intrinsic features, such as the colour or shape of an object. The computer then forms general rules that relate the features to the labels.

“It’s sort of like teaching a child to identify different animals: this is a rabbit, this is a donkey and so on,” said Professor Ross King from Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, who led the research. “If you teach a machine learning algorithm what a rabbit looks like, it will be able to tell whether an animal is or isn’t a rabbit. This is the way that most machine learning works – it deals with problems one at a time.”

However, this is not the way that human learning works: instead of dealing with a single issue at a time, we get better at learning because we have learned things in the past.

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Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)