This short interview has some good explanations.
LeCun: Actually, I think the basics of machine learning are quite simple to understand….
A pattern recognition system is like a black box with a camera at one end, a green light and a red light on top, and a whole bunch of knobs on the front. The learning algorithm tries to adjust the knobs so that when, say, a dog is in front of the camera, the red light turns on, and when a car is put in front of the camera, the green light turns on. You show a dog to the machine. If the red light is bright, don’t do anything. If it’s dim, tweak the knobs so that the light gets brighter. If the green light turns on, tweak the knobs so that it gets dimmer. Then show a car, and tweak the knobs so that the red light get dimmer and the green light gets brighter. If you show many examples of the cars and dogs, and you keep adjusting the knobs just a little bit each time, eventually the machine will get the right answer every time.
Why unsupervised learning is critical in the long run, but does not yet work:
The type of learning that we use in actual Deep Learning systems is very restricted. What works in practice in Deep Learning is “supervised” learning. You show a picture to the system, and you tell it it’s a car, and it adjusts its parameters to say “car” next time around. Then you show it a chair. Then a person. And after a few million examples, and after several days or weeks of computing time, depending on the size of the system, it figures it out.
Now, humans and animals don’t learn this way. You’re not told the name of every object you look at when you’re a baby. And yet the notion of objects, the notion that the world is three-dimensional, the notion that when I put an object behind another one, the object is still there—you actually learn those. You’re not born with these concepts; you learn them. We call that type of learning “unsupervised” learning.