Home Blog Active Learning in Machine Learning: What It Is and How It Works 

Active Learning in Machine Learning: What It Is and How It Works 

Published: August 18, 2023
Editor at Plat.AI
Editor: Ani Mosinyan
Reviewer at Plat.AI
Reviewer: Alek Kotolyan

In the thrilling landscape of artificial intelligence (AI), one particular technique is leaving significant marks. Active learning revolutionizes how we teach and train our machine learning (ML) models, streamlining the path to insightful AI solutions and insights.

Imagine a world where your machine learning model is not just a passive data recipient but an active participant in the learning process. A world where the model doesn’t merely absorb the information but strategically identifies and prioritizes complex informative samples to amplify its understanding. This approach, in essence, is active learning.

In this journey, we’ll traverse the multifaceted terrain of active learning machine learning, touching upon its core principles, benefits, and implementation strategies. If your curiosity is piqued by the promise of more efficient, faster machine learning that saves resources, continue reading to learn more!

What Is Active Learning?

Active learning prioritizes data by feeding the machine learning model information that would have the highest impact on training. Instead of indiscriminately training models on all available data, active learning pinpoints the most ‘informative’ or ‘challenging’ instances to focus on, leading to a more efficient learning process and better model performance.

The model selects data it finds challenging to interpret based on metrics and methods programmed into its active learning algorithm. For example, it might focus on instances where its confidence in predicting the correct output is low. This is how it acknowledges something it doesn’t “know.” 

Once it identifies such instances, it sends these data points for labeling, where a human component comes in. Upon receiving these labeled instances, the model includes them in its training set and retains itself, which helps improve its performance.

This selective learning methodology is like a discerning student focusing on more complex machine learning topics to enhance their understanding rather than memorizing the entire textbook. In machine learning terms, the model identifies and prioritizes certain data based on its current learning stage and challenges.

Consider an image recognition model struggling to differentiate between two similar dog breeds. Rather than inundating the model with a mix of breeds, active learning would direct the model to request more examples of specific breeds it finds challenging.

Training, prediction, selection of informative instances, and retention continue until the model performs well. With active learning, models become more than just passive learners. They take an active role in their education, bringing more precise, efficient, and intelligent AI systems into our world.

How Does Active Learning Work?

Active learning allows machine learning models to be selective about the data they learn from. The way it works can be compared to how we, as humans, selectively focus on different areas based on our needs and goals. 

However, this selection is not entirely autonomous; the model lacks the conscious understanding or decision-making capabilities of humans. Instead, it follows pre-set rules and algorithms to determine which instances could be most informative for its learning process.

Let’s explore how active learning functions by diving into its three primary methods: stream-based selective sampling, pool-based sampling, and membership query synthesis.

Stream-Based Selective Sampling

Think of a never-ending river of data, continuously flowing and ever-evolving. How does a machine learning model determine which data points are worth attention? The answer lies in stream-based selective sampling.

In this strategy, each instance in the data stream is considered individually. The model can identify the data autonomously or request human assistance if it encounters a challenging sample. 

If the latter occurs, the data is labeled by a human, and the model prioritizes this information through active learning to improve its predictive capabilities. The model is like a prospector panning for gold in a stream, looking for nuggets that could add value to its collection.

Stream-based selective sampling is particularly valuable when dealing with real-time, continuously incoming data, such as financial transactions, social media feeds, or network traffic.

The model can make on-the-spot decisions about which instances to learn from, guided by active learning principles and the underlying algorithm it has been programmed with.

However, the challenge with this approach is that it requires the model to make instant decisions, which could lead to potential oversights, as the model might miss some informative instances due to the rapidity of data flow. It’s also worth noting that this approach may not be as practical if the data stream is not diverse or is highly skewed towards specific types of instances.

Pool-Based Sampling

If stream-based sampling is like panning for gold in a river, pool-based sampling is like having a bucket of potential gold nuggets and carefully selecting the most valuable ones. In pool-based sampling, you start with a large pool of unlabeled instances. The model reviews the collection and identifies a subset of the most informative or challenging samples. This subset is found through a predefined query strategy, such as uncertainty sampling, where it selects instances with the least confidence to measure the potential informativeness of each instance. It then sends these instances to be verified by an oracle (a human expert, in most cases), after which it adds the result to its training set to help itself improve.

This method lets the model prioritize learning from instances that could significantly boost performance. For example, in a document classification task, the model might learn from diverse documents covering a range of topics rather than focusing on a single document type, thereby enhancing its understanding and ability to classify a wide array of documents.

However, the downside is that pool-based sampling requires a considerable amount of computational resources, as the model needs to evaluate all instances in the pool to identify the most informative ones. Also, this method isn’t ideal for real-time applications, as the pool needs to be defined upfront.

Membership Query Synthesis

What if the model could not only select which instances to learn from but also create its own instances for querying? Enter membership query synthesis.

In this approach, the model generates instances or queries based on its current understanding and learning objectives. It’s like a student coming up with questions to test their knowledge and fill in any gaps. 

This occurs after the model has already been trained on a subset of similar data and has developed some understanding of the data patterns. The model uses this initial knowledge to generate new instances that target areas of uncertainty in the data.

Membership query synthesis can be particularly useful when dealing with complex or abstract concepts where existing instances may not adequately cover the learning scope. For example, in natural language processing, the model could generate new sentences or phrases to learn more about language rules and context.

The challenge with this approach, however, is that it assumes the model already has a considerable understanding of the problem. If the model lacks this knowledge, it may generate irrelevant or unhelpful instances. Therefore, it’s often used in conjunction with other sampling strategies.

Active Learning vs Reinforcement Learning

While both active learning and reinforcement learning are subsets of machine learning, they operate on distinct principles and approaches. Let’s dive into their differences.

Active Learning

As we’ve discussed, active learning occurs when the model selects the most informative instances from a data pool to improve its performance. It is a type of semi-supervised learning, meaning that it is trained on both labeled and unlabeled data.

Active learning presents key advantages, including efficiency, as it focuses on the most informative data points and improves accuracy by targeting ambiguous instances. However, it also comes with its downfalls, such as increased complexity compared to traditional machine learning, high human dependency, and the risk of bias towards instances it considers informative.

Reinforcement Learning

On the other hand, reinforcement learning is a goal-oriented approach where models learn by interacting with an environment. The model, often called an agent, takes action and receives feedback through rewards or penalties. The aim is to learn a sequence of actions to maximize the total reward over time.

There is no training stage in reinforcement learning, as the agent learns through trial and error. 

Let’s illustrate this with a classic example of a chess game. An agent playing chess would make a move (action), then receive feedback from the game environment (reward or penalty). It learns to make decisions by choosing the action it predicts will yield the most reward in the long run. This method involves learning from past actions and their outcomes, thereby developing a strategy over time.

Reinforcement learning boasts flexibility without a labeled dataset, continuous education from interactions, and adaptability to complex environments. However, it can be computationally demanding, and rewards can sometimes be uncertain, leading to suboptimal outcomes.

Point of Differences Between Active Learning and Reinforcement Learning

The major differences between active learning and reinforcement learning can be summarized as follows:

  • Data Selection vs. Action Sequence: Active learning is about choosing the most informative data, while reinforcement learning involves learning an optimal sequence of actions based on feedback from the environment.
  • Feedback: In active learning, the feedback is the correct label or answer for the selected instances. In reinforcement learning, feedback is the form of rewards or penalties based on the actions taken by the agent.
  • Long-Term Strategy: Active learning does not involve a long-term strategy because each data point is analyzed independently based on the model’s current state. The goal is immediate improvement in the predictive performance of the model. In contrast, reinforcement learning is about maximizing long-term rewards, and actions often depend on previous outcomes.
  • Environment Interaction: Active learning doesn’t involve an ‘environment’ with which the model interacts. Reinforcement learning, however, requires an environment that provides feedback based on the model’s actions.
  • Supervision Level: Active learning is a semi-supervised method often used when there is a large amount of unlabeled data. Reinforcement learning, on the other hand, is usually unsupervised and is suitable for situations where there’s a clear reward system.
  • Use Cases: Active learning algorithms are typically applied to the healthcare industry, natural language processing, and autonomous vehicles. Reinforcement learning can be frequently observed in video games, finance, and robotics.

Active Learning Algorithms and Examples

Active learning’s unique ability to learn from the most informative instances makes it a valuable approach across a variety of sectors. These machine learning subcategories deal with complex and often ambiguous data, where traditional ML approaches might struggle to deliver accurate results. Let’s dive deeper into these use cases of active learning.

Computer Vision

Active learning plays a pivotal role in computer vision, where a vast amount of unlabeled data is used from the Internet. Here are some of the applications:

  • Object Detection: Suppose we’re training a model to identify different types of vehicles in street footage. As new and unique vehicle designs emerge, active learning allows our model to identify unfamiliar instances and request their labels. This keeps the model up-to-date and ensures it accurately recognizes new vehicle types.
  • Image Classification: In the case of medical imaging, models trained to detect diseases could benefit greatly from active learning. When the model encounters ambiguous scans, it can flag them for review by a medical professional. The labeled instances then help refine the model’s learning, improving its future performance.
  • Semantic Segmentation: Active learning in machine learning can also prove beneficial in complex tasks like semantic segmentation. For instance, if we’re training a model to segment different components of a scene for autonomous vehicles, the model could utilize active learning to identify instances (e.g., road signs or obstacles) that it finds challenging to segment and learn from the labeled instances.
  • Image Restoration: In image restoration tasks, like recovering old or damaged photographs, models can often struggle due to the diverse nature of image degradation. Active learning can assist by focusing on instances where the model is uncertain about the restoration process, such as spots with smudges or tears. Once these challenging tasks are flagged and labeled, the model can learn from them and improve its restoration capabilities.

Natural Language Processing

Natural language processing (NLP) is another field where active learning has shown significant promise, with applications like sentiment analysis, language translation, and information extraction.

  • Sentiment Analysis: Sentiment analysis is one of the applications of NLP used to determine the emotional tone behind words to understand the attitudes and opinions behind speech or text. When training models for sentiment analysis, active learning can help in dealing with ambiguous sentiments that are hard to categorize.

    For example, a social media comment, “The new product sure is different,” can confuse a model because “different” can have both a positive and negative connotation. By flagging these confusing instances for human labeling, the model can better understand the nuances of human sentiment.
  • Language Translation: Active learning can aid in improving language translation models. Some sentences or phrases can pose challenges due to cultural or contextual nuances. Active learning enables the model to identify these difficult instances, leading to better translations.
  • Information Extraction: In legal document analysis, machine learning models can help extract relevant entities like parties involved, dates, or legal terms. Some documents can pose extraction challenges due to complex language or unfamiliar words. Active learning allows the model to flag these instances, improving extraction accuracy.

Audio Processing

In audio processing, active learning is beneficial for more accurate and efficient outcomes. Here’s how it is most commonly applied:

  • Speech Recognition: Picture a voice-activated assistant like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home. Understanding users’ diverse accents, dialects, and speech patterns can be challenging. Active learning can help these models flag and learn from challenging instances, leading to more accurate speech recognition over time.
  • Music Classification: For a music streaming service like Spotify, classifying music into genres or moods helps offer personal recommendations. Some tracks can blur the lines between genres, making classification difficult. Active learning allows the model to learn from these ambiguous tracks, improving its categorization and recommendation capability.
  • Audio Event Detection: In an innovative city project, microphones around the city might be used to detect sounds of potential incidents, like car crashes or glass breaking. However, the cacophony of city sounds can make this challenging at times. Active learning helps the model identify and learn from sounds it finds challenging to categorize, enhancing its event detection capabilities.

Challenges and Future Directions in Active Learning for Machine Learning

Despite the remarkable advantages active learning brings to the machine learning field, it has its challenges. 

However, the recognition of these challenges also opens new paths for future research and development, promising an even more robust and versatile active learning landscape in the years to come. Here are some of the challenges:

  • Labeling Cost and Time: Labeling instances usually necessitates the intervention of human experts, who must spend time and effort labeling data accurately. This can be seen as a cost of both time and resources, which is a significant challenge in implementing active learning strategies.
  • Query Strategy Selection: Selecting the appropriate query strategy for specific tasks can be challenging. For example, uncertainty sampling, a common query strategy, might be highly effective for text classification tasks but may not perform well for image recognition tasks.
  • Exploration vs. Exploitation Trade-Off: Active learning must balance exploring new potentially informative instances (exploration) and using instances the model believes will be most beneficial (exploitation). For example, should the model prioritize unfamiliar instances to expand its learning scope or concentrate on less ambiguous instances that it believes will refine its existing knowledge? Striking the right balance between these two can be challenging.
  • Evaluation Metrics: Assessing the performance of an active learning system can be intricate as it involves examining not just the final model performance but the learning trajectory and labeling cost, as well.
  • Scalability: Particularly for high-dimensional data or large data sets, the computational cost of active learning can rise significantly, posing scalability challenges.

As we move further into the era of big data, the role of active learning in the machine learning lifecycle is anticipated to become even more significant. The future lies in deeper integration with other ML methods like reinforcement learning, enabling the creation of hybrid systems that optimize learning efficiency.

Also, cutting-edge developments like those in quantum and edge technologies will likely extend the scope of active learning applications. These technologies use quantum mechanics for much faster data processing than we usually observe in traditional machine-learning models. 

These advancements may improve how we manage and interact with data and make real-time decision-making in various fields possible. At the same time, as questions around data privacy become more prominent, active learning’s less data-reliant approach could be key in building AI systems that respect privacy.


In this exploration of active learning in machine learning, we’ve navigated the principles, methods, and distinctions from other models, applications, challenges, and future directions. As we stand on the brink of an AI revolution, active learning emerges as an empowering approach. This shift does not only optimize model performance but also paves the way for an exciting future.

Tigran Hovsepyan

Tigran Hovsepyan

Staff WriterTigran Hovsepyan is an experienced content writer with a background in Business and Economics. He focuses on IT management, finance, and e-commerce. He also enjoys writing about current trends in music and pop culture.

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