Machine learning specialist joins Statistics

08 April 2016
Mehdi Soleymani

Can we make machines think like we do? Maybe, says machine learning expert Mehdi Soleymani, who recently started in the Department of Statistics.

Machine learning is the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed. Using algorithms that learn iteratively from data, computers can find hidden insights in data without being told where to look. 

Dr Soleymani has come to New Zealand after nine years at the University of Hong Kong, and it’s a task he did there that illustrates how machine learning can be applied to a real-life situation. 

He was asked to devise an algorithm to recognise students who travelled daily from Mainland China to Hong Kong to study, based only on their arrival and departure records at the numerous borders crossings between the two.

“Although the immigration department records the arrival and the departure of a person, it doesn’t record why that person is entering or exiting the region,” explains Dr Soleymani. “So we needed to develop some algorithms which, intelligently, scanned data about a person’s departure and arrival patterns to “guess” if that person was a cross-border student.”

Machine learning is part of our daily lives in myriad ways, he says – it’s part of email spam filtering systems, effective web search and those little recommendations that pop up when you’re searching Amazon or Netflix. On the more experimental side of things, it’s a critical part of the high profile, self-driving Google car, and some researchers think machine learning is the pathway to artificial intelligence as portrayed in any number of popular films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Ex Machina (2015).

Dr Soleymani has come to New Zealand with his wife, Nazafarin. He did his undergraduate and masters degrees at Shahid Beheshti University in his native Iran, and completed his PhD at the University of Hong Kong.

He says he knew little about New Zealand when he saw an advertisement for a job teaching data science in the Department of Statistics. “Later, when I gathered more information about New Zealand and the University of Auckland, I became keener to pursue my career here.”