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Machine learning is a roughly method where a machine learns to perform a certain task by learning on its own. The machine gains experience and can solve a very specific problem intuitively. It is not being educated by a teacher (other than its own experience) nor can it (unfortunately) communicate why it does what it does.

What would be a good Latin translation of "machine learning"? The key aspect is choosing a suitable concept of learning to match what machine learning is all about. For example, educatio, studium, and eruditio sound like a wrong kind of learning, but perhaps cognitio, apprehensio, or discentia might work.

The next step is bringing the machine into the picture. It is probably easiest to understand if it is close to the English choice, for example cognitio machinalis. Judging by the translations offered by Wikipedia, the word "machine" is included in most languages, and the most nontrivial part is a correct kind of learning. The Romance languages are somewhat exceptional with "apprendimento automatico", "apprentissage automatique", and similar.

How would you translate "machine learning" in Latin and why? There are a couple of important aspects of the translation: understandability (at the cost of elegance if needed) and a descriptive choice of "learning".

This question was inspired by a conference I am currently attending.

  • You better buy the domain within 10 seconds of the answer being posted.... – Dan Jan 26 '18 at 20:58
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    @Dan If I had a machine learning start-up in mind, I certainly would. But I think I'll have to pass... :) (Also, if the first answer is generated by Google Translate, I'd be betting on the wrong horse.) – Joonas Ilmavirta Jan 27 '18 at 4:21
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First, let's just note that the English phrase "machine learning" does not unambiguously communicate its meaning. If you had no context for it, you wouldn't know if it meant using a machine to learn, or learning about machines, or a machine doing the learning, etc. So, you've essentially asked for a translation that's more precise than the original phrase.

In fact, even the field of machine learning trades on a few different meanings. Sometimes it refers more to the efforts of researchers trying to teach machines to learn ("Machine learning is a booming research specialty"), sometimes it denotes the desired result, machines that are self-learning ("AlphaZero is a cutting-edge example of machine learning").

I think the best I can do without getting either extremely creative and inventing new words or making really unwieldy Latin is to offer you a way to say that a machine is self-taught. There is rare precedent for a Latin transliteration of a Greek term: autodidactus for αυτοδιδακτος. But it is available in Latin only as an adjective, so far as I am aware.

So:

machina autodidacta (self-taught machine)

ars machinae autodidactae (the field of study concerning self-teaching machines)

But if you're comfortable creating a new Latin verb, we have more options. Let's take "docere", the basic verb for teaching, and add our -auto prefix: autodocere, to teach one's self. I think the meaning will be clear to Latinists seeing it for the first time, though there may be some disagreement about whether it's proper to graft a Greek prefix onto a Latin verb.

This yields machina autodocta, which is equivalent to the previous suggestion. But we can play around with the verbal sense:

machina autodocens (self-teaching machine, a machine that is teaching itself)

ars machinae autodocentis (the field of study related to self-teaching machines)

  • Thanks! I'm not too fond of auto- with a Latin verb, but with the Greek stem it looks very good. Based on your suggestions, I am tempted to call the whole field of machine learning [ars] autodidactica machinata. A self-taught machine could well be machina autodidacta as you mention. // Regarding the first paragraph: I just wanted to make sure that no user tries to give me a direct translation, but rather tries to express the idea in Latin, and so I elaborated on the idea and desired tone. The English phrase is not perfect, and neither will a Latin one be. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jan 29 '18 at 19:48
  • I thought about ars autodidactica, but I'm not sure the adjectival construction allows more than two words, e.g., ars grammatica graeca. In order for there to be a three-word phrase, I think you need a genitive construction. Even there, I don't think machinata works; it means "designed," which is where we get the word machine, a designed object. Mechanica is the closest adjective, but its semantic range is quite broad. Really, if you wanted (which, I think you don't) a phrase that leaves intact the ambiguity of the English, the best is probably mechanica disciplina. – Kingshorsey Jan 29 '18 at 21:42
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    I agree, machinata is not good. The word I was after is machinalis. The ars can be left out, and the title grammatica Graeca is not uncommon. I modeled my idea of autodidactica machinalis on that. Mechanica is an option, but I'm a little afraid of the mechanical (instead of digital) connotations. Whatever I end up choosing (I'm in no hurry with it), your ideas are very useful. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jan 29 '18 at 22:25

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