Self Supervised Learning

Source: Google AI

In recent years, the AI field has made tremendous progress in developing AI systems that can learn from massive amounts of carefully labeled data.

This paradigm of supervised learning has a proven track record for training specialist models that perform extremely well on the task they were trained to do. Unfortunately, there’s a limit to how far the field of AI can go with supervised learning alone.

Supervised learning is a bottleneck for building more intelligent generalist models that can do multiple tasks and acquire new skills without massive amounts of labeled data. Practically speaking, it’s impossible to label everything in the world. There are also some tasks for which there’s simply not enough labeled data, such as training translation systems for low-resource languages.

If AI systems can glean a deeper, more nuanced understanding of reality beyond what’s specified in the training data set, they’ll be more useful and ultimately bring AI closer to human-level intelligence.

As babies, we learn how the world works largely by observation. We form generalized predictive models about objects in the world by learning concepts such as object permanence and gravity. Later in life, we observe the world, act on it, observe again, and build hypotheses to explain how our actions change our environment by trial and error.

A working hypothesis is that generalized knowledge about the world, or common sense, forms the bulk of biological intelligence in both humans and animals. This common-sense ability is taken for granted in humans and animals but has remained an open challenge in AI research since its inception.

In a way, common sense is the dark matter of artificial intelligence.


How is it that humans can learn to drive a car in about 20 hours of practice with very little supervision, while fully autonomous driving still eludes our best AI systems trained with thousands of hours of data from human drivers?

Self-supervised learning enables AI systems to learn from orders of magnitude more data, which is important to recognize and understand patterns of more subtle, less common representations of the world. Self-supervised learning has long had great success in advancing the field of natural language processing (NLP), including the Collobert-Weston 2008 model, Word2Vec, GloVE, fastText, and, more recently, BERT, RoBERTa, XML-R, and others. Systems pretrained this way yield considerably higher performance than when solely trained in a supervised manner.


Self-supervised learning obtains supervisory signals from the data itself, often leveraging the underlying structure in the data. The general technique of self-supervised learning is to predict any unobserved or hidden part (or property) of the input from any observed or unhidden part of the input. For example, as is common in NLP, we can hide part of a sentence and predict the hidden words from the remaining words. We can also predict past or future frames in a video (hidden data) from current ones (observed data). Since self-supervised learning uses the structure of the data itself, it can make use of a variety of supervisory signals across co-occurring modalities all without relying on labels.

As a result of the supervisory signals that inform self-supervised learning, the term “self-supervised learning” is more accepted than the previously used term “unsupervised learning.” Unsupervised learning is an ill-defined and misleading term that suggests that the learning uses no supervision at all.

In fact, self-supervised learning is not unsupervised, as it uses far more feedback signals than standard supervised and reinforcement learning methods do.

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