The Complete Guide to Few-Shot Learning

Few-shot learning is a machine learning model that works with few labeled examples. The article describes how few-shot learning is used in various fields, such as natural language processing, computer vision, healthcare, and speech recognition. We outline different approaches, including meta-learning, data-level methods, parameter-level methods, generative techniques, and more that you need to check.

In 2015, Kaiming He and his colleagues at Microsoft had a breakthrough moment when their model outperformed humans in-image classification using the ImageNet dataset. This milestone suggested that computers had surpassed human capabilities in processing vast amounts of images for targeted tasks.

However, that approach can only work for big companies like Meta or Microsoft and isn’t practical for mid-sized companies. In computer vision, you must classify images with just one or two examples per category. In these situations, humans still take the trophy.

Show a baby a picture of a cat once, and they'll be able to recognize cats from then on. However, if you try this with a ResNet50 model, the results might not be as good. This challenge of learning from a few examples is called few-shot learning.

What is Few-Shot Learning?

Few-Shot Learning is a Machine Learning framework that allows a pre-trained model to adapt and generalize to new categories of data, which it hasn't encountered during its initial training, using only a small number of labeled samples per class.

For instance, in a classification task, you can show the model a few samples from each category, and it will predict the likelihood that an image belongs to each category.

Similarly, few-shot learning can guide a pre-trained model in recognizing specific objects with minimal examples in image segmentation.

Few-shot learning builds on zero-shot and one-shot learning concepts. Zero-shot learning trains a large model to recognize many objects without any specific examples for the task at hand, which can limit its accuracy since it lacks contextual images.

One-shot learning improves on this by allowing you to provide a single reference image, making it useful when you have at least some data to guide the model's predictions.

Few-shot learning is precious when training examples are scarce, such as with rare diseases, or when data annotation is costly. This approach allows models to learn effectively from a limited number of examples.

How Few-Shot Learning Works

Few-Shot Learning functions through a framework called an 'episode,' which is designed to replicate various training tasks. Each episode includes two parts: a support set and a query set.

These sets are small samples drawn from the larger dataset and are used to first train the model on a limited number of examples (support set) and then test its performance (query set) within a defined scope. This method helps the model learn effectively from minimal data inputs.

The FSL process starts by creating a series of training tasks in an episode. For instance, in a '3-way 1-shot' scenario, each task involves learning from a single example of three different classes. This approach allows the model to focus on understanding and generalizing from minimal data for each class, thereby enhancing its ability to perform well on new, unseen tasks with limited examples.

The Few-Shot Learning model then uses the support set to understand the unique characteristics of each class from the provided single examples. It then classifies new examples in the query set, which are variations of the same classes but not encountered during initial training.

In the evaluation phase, the model's generalization ability is tested on several new tasks, including a query set and a support set containing samples from novel classes not present during training. This process ensures the model can adapt to and accurately classify completely new categories based on the limited examples provided.

The next step is to assess the model with a series of test tasks. The core of Few-Shot Learning lies in its ability to demonstrate learning on entirely new, unseen classes during evaluation. Each test task comprises a query set and a support set containing samples from classes not included in the training phase. This approach ensures the model can adapt and accurately classify new categories based on limited examples.

Few-Shot Learning Approaches

Few-shot learning can be implemented in machine learning models through two primary approaches:

  • Meta-learning
  • Data-Level FSL Approach
  • Parameter-Level FSL Approach
  • Generative Methods

Let's delve into these approaches in more detail.


Meta-learning, often called "learning to learn," focuses on training models to quickly adapt to new tasks with limited data. The idea is to teach the model a learning strategy that allows it to generalize from a few examples. This approach typically involves:

  • Meta-Training Phase: The model is exposed to various tasks, each designed to simulate the few-shot learning scenario. It learns from these tasks to develop a strategy for quick adaptation.
  • Meta-Testing Phase: The model is then tested on new tasks to evaluate how well it can apply the learned strategy to classify new data with minimal examples.

Popular meta-learning algorithms include Model-Agnostic Meta-Learning (MAML) and Prototypical Networks. These algorithms enable the model to perform well on unseen tasks by leveraging the knowledge gained during the meta-training phase.

Data-Level FSL Approach

The data-level approach involves a simple idea: when you don't have enough labeled examples, just add more data. `Why? Leveraging large, varied datasets to pre-train your model effectively is key.

The samples in the base dataset will be somewhat different from those in the support and query sets. During training, the model learns broad patterns from the base dataset. Afterward, you can fine-tune this pre-trained model for new classes using only a few examples.

For example, we could train a model using a base dataset filled with various labeled images of common anatomical structures. Then, we could refine the model further using specific medical images, even if we only have a small number of labeled samples for them.

Parameter-Level FSL Approach

The parameter-level few-shot learning approach focuses on adapting the parameters of a preexisting model to new tasks with limited data. Instead of retraining the entire model from scratch, this method fine-tunes the parameters to accommodate new classes or tasks.

In parameter-level FSL, the model is initially trained on a large dataset to learn general features and patterns. Then, when faced with a new task or class with limited examples, the model's parameters are adjusted or fine-tuned using the available data. This allows the model to quickly adapt to the new task without requiring much labeled data.

Overall, parameter-level FSL offers a more efficient way to perform few-shot learning by leveraging pre-trained models and adapting them to specific tasks or classes with minimal data.

Generative Methods

Generative methods employ synthetic data to bolster the support and query sets. Techniques such as data augmentation, generative adversarial networks (GANs), and vision transformers (ViT) are common strategies for generating artificial data.

These methods are really important because they make more examples for the model to learn from, which helps a lot when there isn't much data available. Adding synthetic data is like making the dataset bigger and giving the model more things to see. So, the model better understands different situations and tasks, which is super helpful.

Image Classification Algorithms in Few-Shot Learning

In this section, we delve into each of these prominent few-shot image classification algorithms.

Matching Networks Matching networks improve few-shot learning by learning to compare query images with support set examples. They use an attention mechanism to highlight important examples, enhancing classification accuracy by focusing on relevant data and ignoring irrelevant information.

Prototypical Networks: These algorithms learn a prototype representation for each class in the support set. Prototypes act as centroids in the feature space, capturing each class's characteristics. During inference, query images are classified based on their similarity to these prototypes. This method is effective in few-shot learning because it helps the model generalize to new classes by comparing query images to representative prototypes.

Relation Networks: Relation networks improve few-shot learning by learning a function that measures the similarity between a query image and each class prototype in the support set. They effectively classify query images by modeling the relationship between query and support set samples. This approach captures complex relationships between samples, leading to better classification performance..

Meta-Learning with MAML This is a meta-learning algorithm that aims to learn an initialization of model parameters that can be quickly adapted to new tasks with limited data. MAML (Model-Agnostic Meta-Learning) improves few-shot image classification by learning an initialization that allows quick adaptation to new classes or tasks. This meta-learning approach trains the model to have a generalizable starting point, making it easier to learn from limited data quickly..

Data Augmentation and Transfer Learning: Data augmentation increases the variety of data by adding synthetic examples or using techniques like rotation, flipping, and cropping. Transfer learning uses pre-trained models on large datasets and fine-tunes them for new tasks. This helps the model learn efficiently from limited data and improves performance in few-shot learning scenarios.

Applications of Few-Shot Learning

Few-shot learning is a subfield of machine learning where models are trained to make predictions or classify data with very few labeled examples. This approach is particularly useful when obtaining large datasets is impractical or impossible. Here are several applications of few-shot learning across various domains:

Natural Language Processing (NLP)

  • Text Classification: Few-shot learning can classify text documents into categories with minimal labeled examples. This is especially useful for specialized or rare categories where data is scarce.
  • Named Entity Recognition (NER): Identifying and classifying proper names in text with limited annotated examples, helpful in extracting information from niche or low-resource languages.
  • Machine Translation: Enhancing translation models for low-resource languages or dialects where large corpora are unavailable.

Computer Vision

  • Object Detection: Identifying objects in images or videos with few annotated instances. This is useful in medical imaging, where labeled data is limited and expensive.
  • Image Classification: Classifying images into categories with minimal training data. This can be applied to tasks like recognizing rare species in wildlife conservation or classifying new product images in e-commerce.


  • Medical Imaging: Diagnosing diseases from medical images such as X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans where annotated examples are limited due to the rarity of certain conditions.
  • Drug Discovery: Predicting the efficacy or toxicity of new compounds with limited experimental data, accelerating the discovery of new drugs.

Speech Recognition

  • Accent and Dialect Adaptation: Adapting speech recognition systems to understand different accents or dialects with limited labeled audio data, improving accessibility and usability for diverse populations.
  • Speaker Identification: Identifying speakers in an audio clip with only a few samples of their voice is useful in security and forensic applications.

Final Thoughts

Few-shot learning is changing how we approach data science, focusing on making the most out of minimal data. This method is perfect for situations where there's not a lot of data available. By helping models learn from a few examples, few-shot learning improves their flexibility and strength.

Its wide range of applications, from computer vision to speech recognition, shows its powerful impact. As research continues, few-shot learning is set to transform how we make data-driven decisions, leading to quicker and more efficient machine learning systems.

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