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What do you mean by pretraining, finetuning and transfer learning?

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Related Questions:
– What is Natural Language Processing (NLP) ? List some of the common NLP tasks

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Pretraining, Finetuning and Transfer Learning using Transformers
Title: Pretraining, Finetuning and Transfer Learning using Transformers
Source: Research


Pretraining, in the context of machine learning and neural networks, refers to training a language model from scratch. Starting with randomly initialized weights, the model is trained on a massive corpus of text data. Pretraining methods hide parts of the input from the model, and train the model to reconstruct those parts. During the training phase, the model learns to understand the structure of language, the relationships between words, and other linguistic features , thereby constructing a pretrained model (also known as foundational models) with updated weights.

Pretraining of a language model
Title: Pretraining of a language model
Source: Research

Pretrained models have been remarkably efficient at building strong representations of language, initializing parameters for NLP models and creating probability distributions over language, from which we can generate samples. For instance, with the emergence of transformer models, a paradigm of pretraining followed by finetuning has developed. In this approach, pretrained models are fine-tuned on smaller, task-specific datasets to tailor them for NLP tasks such as sentiment analysis, text classification, and machine translation.

Pretraining a language model, however, can be a very resource intensive process, both in terms of time and money. It could take several days/weeks and significant financial investments, depending on the size of data to build a pretrained model.  For instance, BERT, which has 340 milion parameters, was pretrained with 64 TPU chips for a total of 4 days [source]. Another example is GPT-3 model, which has 175 billion parameters, was trained on 10,000 V100 GPUs, for 14.8 days [source] with an estimated training cost of over $4.6 million [source].

Note: ChatGPT was powered by the original GPT-3 model when launched in Nov 2022 and has been evolving ever since


Fine-tuning, in the context of machine learning and deep learning, refers to the process of taking a pretrained model and further training it on a smaller, task-specific dataset. The goal of fine-tuning is to adapt the model’s learned representations to perform well on a specific task without starting the training process from scratch.

Fine-tune modeling process
Title: Fine-tune modeling process
Source: Research

What is the advantage of fine-tuning instead of training a model from scratch?

The advantages of the pretraining followed by fine-tuning paradigm are substantial including reduced data requirements, shorter training times, decreased computational resources, and consequently, lowered costs.

Training a model from scratch often requires a substantial amount of data to learn meaningful representations. It is is computationally expensive and time-consuming. Fine-tuning, on the other hand, can work effectively with a smaller amount of task-specific data since it starts with knowledge learned by the pretrained model. Fine-tuning builds upon a pretrained model, and adapts it to the specific task, potentially leading to quicker convergence and better performance. This significantly reduces the amount of data, training time and computational resources needed.

Note: It is important to choose a pretrained model that bears some similarity to the task-specific dataset

Transfer Learning

Transfer learning is a machine learning technique where knowledge gained from solving one task is applied to a different, but related, task. Transfer learning can be particularly useful in scenarios where you have limited data for the target task but ample data for a related task.

Pretraining + Finetuning is one of the best examples for transfer learning. This involves training a model on a source task [Pretrained model] and then using the learned knowledge to improve the model’s performance on a target task [Finetuned model].

An example of transfer learning to build a sentiment analysis model
Title: An example of transfer learning to build a sentiment analysis model
Source: Research

Video Explanation

The following video playlist explains the difference between Pre-training and Fine-tuning and also explains the concept of Transfer Learning.

  • The video titled: What is Transfer Learning, explains the concept of transfer learning, pre-training, and fine-tuning in the context of images
  • For the video titled: Transfer Learning and Transformers Model, the explanation starts at 29:47 (section3: Transfer Learning and BERT). In this video Lulia Turc explains the concepts of transfer learning, pre-training and fine-tuning in the context of Language models
Pre-Training, Fine-Tuning and Transfer Learning

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