'Transfer learning' jump-starts new AI projects


No statistical algorithm can be the master of all machine learning application domains. That’s because the domain knowledge encoded in that algorithm is specific to the analytical challenge for which it was constructed. If you try to apply that same algorithm to a data source that differs in some way, large or small, from the original domain’s training data, its predictive power may fall flat.

That said, a new application domain may have so much in common with prior applications that data scientists can’t be blamed for trying to reuse hard-won knowledge from prior models. This is a well-established but fast-evolving frontier of data science known as “transfer learning” (but goes by other names such as knowledge transfer, inductive transfer, and meta learning).

Transfer learning refers to reuse of some or all of the training data, feature representations, neural-node layering, weights, training method, loss function, learning rate, and other properties of a prior model.

Transfer learning is a supplement to, not a replacement for, other learning techniques that form the backbone of most data science practices. Typically, a data scientist relies on transfer learning to tap into statistical knowledge that was gained on prior projects through supervised, semi-supervised, unsupervised, or reinforcement learning.

, transfer learning is an essential capability to address machine learning projects in which prior training data can become easily outdated. This problem of training-data obsolescence often happens in dynamic problem domains, such as trying to gauge social sentiment or track patterns in sensor data.

, the data scientists who got the 2016 U.S. presidential election dead wrong could have benefited from statistical knowledge gained in postmortem studies of failed predictions from the U.K. Brexit fiasco.

Transfer learning can help data scientists mitigate the risks of machine-learning-driven predictions in any problem domain susceptible to highly improbable events. For example, cross-fertilization of statistical knowledge from meteorological models may be useful in predicting “perfect storms” of congestion in traffic management. Likewise, historical data on “black swans” in economics, such as stock-market crashes and severe depressions, may be useful in predicting catastrophic developments in politics and epidemiology.

Transfer learning isn’t only a productivity tool to assist data scientists with their next modeling challenge. It also stands at the forefront of the data science community’s efforts to invent “” that automatically gain and apply fresh contextual knowledge through deep neural networks and other forms of AI.

Clearly, humanity is nowhere close to fashioning such a “superintelligence” — and some people, fearing a or similar dystopia, hope we never do. But it’s not far-fetched to predict that, as data scientists encode more of the world’s practical knowledge in statistical models, these AI nuggets will be composed into machine intelligence of staggering sophistication.

Transfer learning will become a membrane through which this statistical knowledge infuses everything in our world.