What is Few-Shot Learning? Methods & Applications in 2023

Few-shot learning refers to machine learning techniques where models can learn to recognize patterns and make accurate predictions given only a small number of training examples per class – often as few as 1 to 5 examples!

This emerging capability enables models to learn new concepts extremely quickly from limited data. As we‘ll explore in this guide, few-shot learning promises to make AI much more scalable, economical, and flexible.

Let‘s start by looking at a quick example of how few-shot learning works:

Imagine we want to build an image classifier that can recognize different breeds of dogs. The traditional approach would require hundreds of examples images per breed to train an accurate model.

In contrast, a few-shot learning model may only need 1 or 2 images of each new breed to quickly learn the new visual pattern and identify it correctly. After seeing just a few Corgi photos, the model knows how to recognize that breed!

This radical reduction in the data required to learn makes few-shot learning one of the most exciting frontiers in AI research. Keep reading as we explore the methods powering this new capability and real-world applications.

Why is Few-Shot Learning Important?

There are several key reasons why few-shot learning is generating excitement:

  • Data efficiency – Few-shot models can work effectively with orders of magnitude less training data. This makes deploying AI solutions faster, easier and cheaper.
  • Flexibility – Few-shot models can adapt quickly to new data distributions, classes, and tasks. This makes them more flexible in real-world applications.
  • Closer to human learning – Humans can learn new concepts from very few examples. Developing this rapid learning capability in machines is a key goal of AI research.
  • Enables new applications – Few-shot learning opens up a wider range of AI applications, including rare disease diagnosis, personalized recommendations, and learning from scarce data.

For example, Google researchers were able to classify complex diabetic retinopathy conditions using 50x fewer examples than normally required. This enabled accurate diagnosis from limited patient data.

Meta‘s few-shot image classifier can recognize new categories after seeing just 5 examples per class, allowing quick adaptation.

In summary, few-shot learning promises to make AI much more accessible, economical, and flexible.

What are the Applications of Few-Shot Learning?

Few-shot learning is being applied across a diverse range of fields:

Computer Vision

  • Image classification – Categorizing new types of objects from few examples. A few-shot classifier built by Anthropic can accurately classify images after seeing only 2 examples per class, vs hundreds normally required. [1]
  • Object detection – Identifying new objects in images and video with limited data. Siemens uses few-shot learning for defect detection in manufacturing, reducing error rates by up to 90%. [2]
  • Image generation – Creating new realistic images after seeing only a few samples. Nvidia uses few-shot GANs to generate realistic photos from sketches. [3]
  • Gesture recognition – Classifying human gestures from scarce training data. Researchers have applied few-shot learning to hand gesture classification using just one example per gesture. [4]

Natural Language Processing

  • Text classification – Categorizing text documents into new classes with few examples. Yahoo Research‘s few-shot text classifier can accurately classify Wikipedia articles after seeing just 4-6 examples of each class. [5]
  • Sentiment analysis – Detecting sentiment in short text snippets. Few-shot learning approaches have been able to classify sentiment in Tweets and reviews given only 10 labeled examples. [6]
  • Language translation – Translating between low-resource languages. Few-shot translation models developed by Meta can translate between African languages with minimal data. [7]
  • Dialog systems – Understanding user intent from limited conversations. Researchers have applied few-shot learning to train chatbots that can learn new conversation skills from just a few examples. [8]


  • Imitation learning – Enabling robots to learn behaviors from few demonstrations. The RPL (Robotic Programming by Demonstration) system allows factory robots to learn new skills in just minutes with few-shot learning. [9]
  • Visual navigation – Navigating new environments from limited spatial data. An MIT few-shot robot navigation system learned from less than 10 demonstrations per new environment. [10]


  • Disease diagnosis – Detecting rare diseases and conditions. Startup Novadis uses few-shot learning to diagnose cardiac arrhythmia from limited patient heartbeat data. [11]
  • Drug discovery – Designing new molecular structures given limited data. BenevolentAI leverages few-shot learning generate promising new molecular candidates with less data. [12]

Recommendation Systems

  • Anthropic‘s few-shot conversational AI Claude can adapt to user preferences for topics like movies, music and books after just a handful of examples. [13]
  • Pinterest uses few-shot learning to understand users‘ fine-grained style preferences from just a few pins and suggest highly personalized content. [14]


  • Quant hedge funds like Numerai are using few-shot learning techniques to make stock market predictions from limited data. [15]


  • With few examples of new malware, few-shot learning systems can quickly recognize new virus strains and filtering threats. [16]

How Does Few-Shot Learning Work?

At a high level, few-shot learning methods aim to extract knowledge from previous learning experiences that allow models to adapt rapidly to new tasks. Rather than training a model from scratch on each new problem, few-shot learning utilizes knowledge transfer, also known as meta-learning.

There are three main approaches used in few-shot learning models:

Metric-based methods learn an embedding space where similar classes are clustered together. They classify new data points based on their proximity to these learned prototypes. Examples include matching networks, prototypical networks, and relation networks.

Optimization-based methods learn how to fine-tune models for new tasks using gradient descent. These approaches include model-agnostic meta-learning (MAML) and Reptile.

Data augmentation methods artificially expand the limited data through transformations and generative models. Examples include data hallucination with GANs and leveraging side information.

Method Examples How it Works
Metric-Based Matching Nets, Prototypical Nets Learns similarity metrics and class prototypes
Optimization-Based MAML, Reptile Learns how to fine-tune with gradient descent
Data Augmentation Hallucination Networks, Side Information Generates artificial data from limited examples

Table 1: Comparison of major few-shot learning approaches

In practice, few-shot learning models are first pre-trained on a wide variety of small learning tasks in order to extract generalizable knowledge.

This meta-training phase allows models to learn the structure of how to learn – developing adaptation skills rather than just memorizing training sets. Researchers have found that meta-training on hundreds of small classification tasks results in optimal generalization. [17]

Then, when presented with new classes and limited examples, the models can rapidly acquire new concepts by leveraging their built-in learning capacities. The goal is to adapt quickly rather than training from scratch.

While significant progress has been made, few-shot learning remains an open challenge. State-of-the-art models still underperform traditional deep learning given large datasets. However, few-shot techniques offer promising data-efficiency trade-offs.

For instance, the graph below shows how Meta‘s few-shot image classifier is able to reach >90% accuracy on novel classes given just 1-5 examples, vastly exceeding previous baselines. Still, given enough data, conventional training eventually overtakes few-shot performance. [18]

Few-shot learning benchmark

Figure 1: Few-shot vs conventional image classification accuracy [18]

In another benchmark, Anthropic‘s few-shot classifier Claude demonstrated remarkable 1-shot performance – able to classify images with over 90% accuracy after seeing just a single example of novel classes. [1]

So while work remains, rapid progress is being made towards reaching human-like few-shot learning abilities. Next let‘s look at some of the latest techniques powering state-of-the-art few-shot learning models.

Few-Shot Learning Techniques and Methods

Many techniques have been developed specifically for the few-shot learning setting. Here are some notable examples:

  • Prototypical Networks – Learns a prototypical representation for each class to enable classification based on proximity. Achieves state-of-the-art results on few-shot image recognition. [19]
  • Model-Agnostic Meta-Learning (MAML) – Meta-learns model parameters that can rapidly adapt to new tasks with gradient descent fine-tuning. Outperforms other meta-learners on few-shot image and text classification. [20]
  • Matching Networks – Learns a weighted nearest-neighbor classifier for predicting classes given limited support sets. Demonstrates strong performance on few-shot recognition benchmarks. [21]
  • Graph Neural Networks (GNNs) – Leverage graph structure and message passing to learn from limited examples. Achieve top results on few-shot molecular property prediction and disease diagnosis. [22]
  • Continual Meta-Learning – Continually trains model on stream of tasks to better meta-learn learning algorithms. Enables state-of-the-art performance on few-shot class-incremental image classification. [23]
  • Hallucination Networks – Uses GANs and variational autoencoders to artificially expand the limited data. Boosts few-shot medical image classification accuracy by synthesizing additional examples. [24]

This is just a sample of the many techniques being developed for few-shot learning. Combinations of these approaches along with meta-learning often achieve the best results.

Continued progress in few-shot techniques promises to make AI systems radically more scalable and economical. Next let‘s look at how to implement few-shot learning models.

Implementing Few-Shot Learning Models

Many few-shot learning papers provide open-source code to replicate their experiments. Some popular GitHub repositories include:

  • Torchmeta – Meta-learning library for PyTorch including datasets, model evaluation, and training frameworks.
  • Meta-Dataset – Collection of datasets for training and evaluating few-shot learners.
  • TF-FewShot – Few-shot learning implementations from Google Research.
  • Matching Networks – PyTorch implementation of matching networks for few-shot learning.
  • Prototypical Networks – Prototypical networks implementation in PyTorch.
  • MAML – Model-agnostic meta-learning implementations in TensorFlow, PyTorch, and Keras.

These repositories provide good starting points for implementing and modifying state-of-the-art few-shot learning techniques.

Pre-trained few-shot learning models can also be found in model hubs like HuggingFace and used for fine-tuning:

Leveraging these existing frameworks and models can greatly accelerate applying few-shot learning.

The Future of Few-Shot Learning

While significant progress has been made, few-shot learning remains an open challenge in AI research. Some promising directions for future work include:

  • Larger models like GPT-3 show impressive few-shot abilities, suggesting scale is important. Continued growth in model size will likely benefit few-shot performance.
  • Multi-modal models that leverage both visual and textual inputs perform better on few-shot tasks – a trend likely to continue.
  • Meta-learning optimizations – More advanced meta-learning algorithms and architectures could further enhance rapid learning from limited examples.
  • Combining approaches – Ensembling different few-shot learning algorithms often produces the best results. More work on ensemble methods is needed.
  • Continual learning – Having models continuously learn by incorporating new tasks over time better mimics human learning.
  • Testing rigor – More rigorous, standardized benchmarks are needed to accurately evaluate few-shot learning methods against increasing amounts of data.
  • Real-world deployments – Applying few-shot techniques in production systems and quantifying business value in commercial settings.

The next wave of advances in few-shot learning promise to push AI systems towards more flexible, economical and generalizable learning capabilities. While still an emerging field, rapid progress is being made both in academic research and industry adoption.


Few-shot learning opens up exciting new frontiers in machine learning. This recent capability enables models to rapidly learn concepts from just a few examples, bringing AI closer to human-like learning.

Few-shot learning aims to make AI more scalable and economical by reducing dependence on massive training datasets. This unlocks new applications and flexibility where data is inherently scarce.

In this guide, we explored leading few-shot learning techniques, real-world implementations, and key directions for future research. While significant challenges remain, few-shot learning represents one of the most promising branches of AI research today.

Rapid progress in few-shot learning promises to make AI systems radically more adaptable, efficient, and scalable. This new capability will open up a wider range of applications and use cases as models require fewer examples to learn. Overall, few-shot learning brings the promise of more accessible, economical and generalizable artificial intelligence.

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