Published by Unbox.ai
Machine learning models, especially deep neural networks, are trained using large amounts of data. However, for many machine learning use cases, real-world data sets do not exist or are prohibitively costly to buy and label. In such scenarios, synthetic data represents an appealing, less expensive, and scalable solution.
Additionally, several real-world machine learning problems suffer from class imbalance—that is, where the distribution of the categories of data is skewed, resulting in disproportionately fewer observations for one or more categories. Synthetic data can be used in such situations to balance out the underrepresented data and train models that generalize well in real-world settings.
Synthetic data is now increasingly used for various applications, such as computer vision, image recognition, speech recognition, and time-series data, among others. In this article, you will learn about synthetic data, its benefits, and how it is generated for different use cases.
What is synthetic data?
Synthetic data is a form of data augmentation that is commonly used to address overfitting deep learning models. It’s generated with algorithms as well as machine learning models to have similar statistical properties as the real-world data sets. For data-hungry deep learning models, the availability of large training data sets is a massive bottleneck that can often be solved with synthetic data.
Additionally, synthetic data can be used for myriad business problems where real-world data sets are missing or underrepresented. Several industries—like consumer tech, finance, healthcare, manufacturing, security, automotive, and robotics—are already benefiting from the use of synthetic data. It helps avoid the key bottleneck in the machine learning lifecycle of the unavailability of data and allows teams to continue developing and iterating on innovative data products.
For example, building products related to natural language processing (NLP), like search or language translation, is often problematic for low-resource languages. Synthetic data generation has been successfully used to generate parallel training data for training deep learning models for neural machine translation.
Generating synthetic data for machine learning
There are several standard approaches for generating synthetic data. These include the following:
Types of synthetic data
Synthetic data can be classified into different types based on their usage and the data format. Generally, it falls into one of two categories:
Popular types of synthetic data, classified according to the data type, include the following:
Synthetic text finds its use in applications like language translation, content moderation, and product reviews. Synthetic images are used extensively for purposes like training self-driving cars, while synthetic audio and video data is used for applications including speech recognition, virtual assistants, and digital avatars. Synthetic time-series data are used in financial services to represent the temporal aspect of financial data, like stock price. Finally, synthetic tabular data is used in domains like e-commerce and fraud.
Techniques for generating synthetic data
Generating synthetic data can be very simple, such as adding noise to data samples, and can also be highly sophisticated, requiring the use of state-of-the-art models like generative adversarial networks. In this section, you’ll review two chief methods for generating synthetic data for machine learning and deep learning applications.
In statistics, data samples can be assumed to be generated from a probability distribution with certain characteristic statistical features like mean, variance, skew, and so on. For instance, in the case of anomaly detection, one assumes that the nonanomalous samples belong to a certain statistical distribution while the anomalous or outlier samples do not correspond to this data distribution.
Consider a hypothetical machine learning example of predicting the salaries of data scientists with certain years of experience at top tech companies. In the absence of real-world salary data, which is a topic considered taboo, synthetic salary data can be generated from a distribution defined by the few real-world salary public reports on platforms like Glassdoor, LinkedIn, or Quora. This can be used by recruiters and hiring teams to benchmark their own salary levels and adjust the salary offers to new hires.
Deep learning-based methods
As the complexity of the data increases, statistical-sampling-based methods are not a good choice for synthetic data generation. Neural networks, especially deep neural networks, are capable of making better approximations of complex, nonlinear data like faces or speech. A neural network essentially represents a transformation from a set of inputs to a complex output, and this transformation can be applied on synthetic inputs to generate synthetic outputs. Two popular neural network architectures for generating synthetic data are variational autoencoders and generative adversarial networks, which will be discussed in detail in the next sections.
Variational autoencoders are generative models that belong to the autoencoder class of unsupervised models. They learn the underlying distribution of a data set and subsequently generate new data based on the learned representation.
VAEs consist of two neural networks: an encoder that learns an efficient latent representation of the source data distribution and a decoder that aims to transform this latent representation back into the original space. The advantage of using VAEs is that the quality of the generated samples can be quantified objectively using the reconstruction error between the original distribution and the output of the decoder. VAEs can be trained efficiently through an objective function that minimizes the reconstruction error.
VAEs represent a strong baseline approach for generating synthetic data. However, VAEs suffer from a few disadvantages. They are not able to learn efficient representations of heterogeneous data and are not straightforward to train and optimize. These problems can be overcome using generative adversarial networks.
Generative adversarial networks
GANs are a relatively new class of generative deep learning models. Like VAEs, GANs are based on simultaneously training two neural networks but via an adversarial process.
A generative model, G, is used to learn the latent representation of the original data set and generate samples. The discriminator model, D, is a supervised model that learns to distinguish whether a random sample came from the original data set or is generated by G. The objective of the generator G is to maximize the probability of the discriminator D, making a classification error. This adversarial training process, similar to a zero-sum game, is continued until the discriminator can no longer distinguish between the original and synthetic data samples from the generator.
GANs originally became popular for synthesizing images for a variety of computer-visionproblems, including image recognition, text-to-image and image-to-image translation, super resolution, and so on. Recently, GANs have proven to be highly versatile and useful for generating synthetic text as well as private or sensitive data like patient medical records.
Synthetic data generation with Openlayer
Openlayer is a machine learning debugging workspace that helps individual data scientists and enterprise organizations alike to track and version models, uncover errors, and generate synthetic data. It is primarily used to augment underrepresented portions or classes in the original training data set. Synthetic data is generated from existing data samples, and data-augmentation tests are conducted to verify whether the model’s predictions on the synthetic data are the same as for the original data.
In this article, you learned about synthetic data for machine learning and deep learning applications. In the absence of real-world data, as well as other pertinent issues like privacy concerns or the high costs of data acquisition and labeling, synthetic data presents a versatile and scalable solution. Synthetic data has found mainstream acceptance in a number of domains and for a variety of data types, including text, audio, video, time series, and tabular data.
You explored these different types of synthetic data and the various methods for generation. These include statistical approaches as well as neural network–based methods like variational autoencoders and generative adversarial networks. Then you walked through a brief tutorial for generating synthetic data using deep learning methods. Finally, you saw the utility of third-party synthetic data generation products such as Openlayer, which can help companies rapidly scale their synthetic data requirements and accelerate model development and deployment.
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