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Understanding Synthetic Data

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Synthetic data is a quickly expanding trend and emerging tool in the field of data science. What is synthetic data exactly? The short answer is that synthetic data is comprised of data that isn’t based on any real-world phenomena or events, rather it’s generated via a computer program. Yet why is synthetic data becoming so important for data science? How is synthetic data created? Let’s explore the answers to these questions.

What is a Synthetic Dataset?

As the term “synthetic” suggests, synthetic datasets are generated through computer programs, instead of being composed through the documentation of real-world events. The primary purpose of a synthetic dataset is to be versatile and robust enough to be useful for the training of machine learning models.

In order to be useful for a machine learning classifier, the synthetic data should have certain properties. While the data can be categorical, binary, or numerical, the length of the dataset should be arbitrary and the data should be randomly generated. The random processes used to generate the data should be controllable and based on various statistical distributions. Random noise may also be placed in the dataset.

If the synthetic data is being used for a classification algorithm, the amount of class separation should be customizable, in order that the classification problem can be made easier or harder according to the problem’s requirements. Meanwhile, for a regression task, non-linear generative processes can be employed to generate the data.

Why Use Synthetic Data?

As machine learning frameworks like TensorfFlow and PyTorch become easier to use and pre-designed models for computer vision and natural language processing become more ubiquitous and powerful, the primary problem that data scientists must face is the collection and handling of data. Companies often have difficulty acquiring large amounts of data to train an accurate model within a given time frame. Hand-labeling data is a costly, slow way to acquire data. However, generating and using synthetic data can help data scientists and companies overcome these hurdles and develop reliable machine learning models a quicker fashion.

There are a number of advantages to using synthetic data. The most obvious way that the use of synthetic data benefits data science is that it reduces the need to capture data from real-world events, and for this reason it becomes possible to generate data and construct a dataset much more quickly than a dataset dependent on real-world events. This means that large volumes of data can be produced in a short timeframe. This is especially true for events that rarely occur, as if an event rarely happens in the wild, more data can be mocked up from some genuine data samples. Beyond that, the data can be automatically labeled as it is generated, drastically reducing the amount of time needed to label data.

Synthetic data can also be useful to gain training data for edge cases, which are instances that may occur infrequently but are critical for the success of your AI. Edge cases are events that are very similar to the primary target of an AI but differ in important ways. For instance, objects that are only partially in view could be considered edge cases when designing an image classifier.

Finally, synthetic datasets can minimize privacy concerns. Attempts to anonymize data can be ineffective, as even if sensitive/identifying variables are removed from the dataset, other variables can act as identifiers when they are combined. This isn’t an issue with synthetic data, as it was never based on a real person, or real event, in the first place.

Uses Cases for Synthetic Data

Synthetic data has a wide variety of uses, as it can be applied to just about any machine learning task. Common use cases for synthetic data include self-driving vehicles, security, robotics, fraud protection, and healthcare.

One of the initial use cases for synthetic data was self-driving cars, as synthetic data is used to create training data for cars in conditions where getting real, on-the-road training data is difficult or dangerous. Synthetic data is also useful for the creation of data used to train image recognition systems, like surveillance systems, much more efficiently than manually collecting and labeling a bunch of training data. Robotics systems can be slow to train and develop with traditional data collection and training methods. Synthetic data allows robotics companies to test and engineer robotics systems through simulations. Fraud protection systems can benefit from synthetic data, and new fraud detection methods can be trained and tested with data that is constantly new when synthetic data is used. In the healthcare field, synthetic data can be used to design health classifiers that are accurate, yet preserve people’s privacy, as the data won’t be based on real people.

Synthetic Data Challenges

While the use of synthetic data brings many advantages with it, it also brings many challenges.

When synthetic data is created, it often lacks outliers. Outliers occur in data naturally, and while often dropped from training datasets, their existence may be necessary to train truly reliable machine learning models. Beyond this, the quality of synthetic data can be highly variable. Synthetic data is often generated with an input, or seed, data, and therefore the quality of the data can be dependent on the quality of the input data. If the data used to generate the synthetic data is biased, the generated data can perpetuate that bias. Synthetic data also requires some form of output/quality control. It needs to be checked against human-annotated data, or otherwise authentic data is some form.

How Is Synthetic Data Created?

Synthetic data is created programmatically with machine learning techniques. Classical machine learning techniques like decision trees can be used, as can deep learning techniques. The requirements for the synthetic data will influence what type of algorithm is used to generate the data. Decision trees and similar machine learning models let companies create non-classical, multi-modal data distributions, trained on examples of real-world data. Generating data with these algorithms will provide data that is highly correlated with the original training data. For instances where the typical distribution of data is known , a company can generate synthetic data through use of a Monte Carlo method.

Deep learning-based methods of generating synthetic data typically make use of either a variational autoencoder (VAE) or a generative adversarial network (GAN). VAEs are unsupervised machine learning models that make use of encoders and decoders. The encoder portion of a VAE is responsible for compressing the data down into a simpler, compact version of the original dataset, which the decoder then analyzes and uses to generate an a representation of the base data. A VAE is trained with the goal of having an optimal relationship between the input data and output, one where both input data and output data are extremely similar.

When it comes to GAN models, they are called “adversarial” networks due to the fact that GANs are actually two networks that compete with each other. The generator is responsible for generating synthetic data, while the second network (the discriminator) operates by comparing the generated data with a real dataset and tries to determine which data is fake. When the discriminator catches fake data, the generator is notified of this and it makes changes to try and get a new batch of data by the discriminator. In turn, the discriminator becomes better and better at detecting fakes. The two networks are trained against each other, with fakes becoming more lifelike all the time.

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