Can AI work with little data?
Published on September 26, 2023 --- 0 min read
By Simona Mazzarino

Can AI work with little data?

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) has made remarkable strides in recent years, achieving astounding performance levels in several tasks like image recognition, natural language processing and more. One common challenge that AI faces is the need for vast amounts of data to train and fine-tune the models behind these activities. The extensive data intensive testing and fine-tuning is imperative for the models to recognize intricate patterns, make precise predictions, and tackle complex tasks with remarkable precision. However, data is often scarce in highly specialized contexts.

So, this leads us to the question: Can AI work well with little data? The brief answer is yes. Continue reading to know why and how, while we dive into some innovative approaches researchers and practitioners use to overcome the data scarcity hurdle.

The Data Dilemma

As we mentioned earlier, AI algorithms, particularly deep learning models, thrive on vast datasets. These models learn from examples and use that knowledge to generalize to new, unseen data. But, in real-world scenarios, obtaining vast amounts of labeled data can be challenging.

In the following section, let’s explore some of the reasons why collecting data can be difficult and in which cases traditional AI approaches may fall short.

Privacy Costraints

Privacy constraints make data collection a complex and sensitive process, requiring organizations to navigate legal, ethical, and technical challenges while respecting individuals' privacy rights and maintaining trust. Moreover, according to the principle of data minimization mandated by privacy regulations like GDPR and CPRA, organizations should collect only the data that is necessary for a specific purpose. This makes it difficult to collect excessive or irrelevant data, as it may infringe on individuals' privacy rights. In domains such as healthcare or finance, stringent privacy regulations often restrict access to sensitive patient or financial data, making it a difficult task to gather extensive datasets that AI needs.

Niche Domains

Specialized fields, such as certain scientific disciplines like rare disease diagnosis or industry-specific applications as simulating the behavior of electronic components in the automotive sector, often face a fundamental challenge: Limited data availability due to their narrow focus. Niche domains typically involve smaller populations or fewer participants, resulting in restricted sample sizes for data collection. This limitation can give rise to statistical challenges and potentially less reliable outcomes. Furthermore, gathering data in these specialized areas demands specific expertise and domain knowledge. Identifying professionals or teams possessing the requisite skills to design and execute data collection efforts can prove to be a demanding task.

Cost and effort

Collecting and meticulously annotating extensive data can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, rendering it impractical for many projects. It requires dedicated resources, including personnel, equipment and technology and it may involve long processes of data verification and cleaning. Moreover, storing and managing large volumes of data can incur costs related to storage infrastructure, data backup, and data management tools.

Solutions to the data scarcity problem

Thanks to the development of various approaches to overcome the obstacles arising from data scarcity, it’s then possible to work even with little data. Some of these approaches are, for instance:

  • transfer learning, a technique where a pre-trained model, trained on a large dataset, is fine-tuned on a smaller, task-specific dataset, leveraging knowledge from one task to boost performance on another
  • few-shot learning, a subfield of machine learning where models are trained to make accurate predictions with only a few examples per class
  • active learning, a semi-supervised approach where the model selects the most informative samples for human annotation, and, last but not least
  • data augmentation which involves creating additional training data by applying various transformations to existing data.

Data Augmentation and Synthetic Data

Data augmentation is a technique that artificially increases the size of a dataset by applying various transformations to the existing data. These transformations can include rotations, translations, scaling, cropping, and more, depending on the data type and the problem at hand.

The beauty of data augmentation lies in its ability to inject variability into the training data without collecting additional real-world samples. AI models trained on augmented data become more robust, exhibit improved generalization and better equipment to handle limited data scenarios. However, this works with unstructured data, such as texts or images. But what if you need to work with structured data and there’s scarcely any data to begin with? This is where synthetic data generation steps in. Synthetic data is artificially created data that mimics real-world examples, conserving statistical properties. We talked about that in a previous post. It is especially valuable when there's a lack of authentic data.

Furthermore, working with synthetic data comes with several benefits, including:

  • Infinite Supply: Synthetic data can be generated unlimitedly, ensuring that AI models never run out of training examples.
  • Privacy and Security: In scenarios where real data is unusable due to privacy concerns (e.g., facial recognition), synthetic data can be a privacy-friendly alternative.
  • Rare Scenarios: Synthetic data can be tailored to include rare events or edge cases, enhancing model robustness.


Therefore, the answer to whether AI can effectively work with limited data is definitely positive. While AI models have traditionally thrived on extensive datasets, the innovative approaches we just described are reshaping the landscape of AI development.

As AI continues its rapid evolution, the ability to thrive with little data is becoming increasingly vital. These approaches are not only bridging the gap between data scarcity and AI's demand for it, but also opening up new frontiers for AI applications in diverse fields. In this age of data-driven innovation, it's no longer a question of whether AI can handle small datasets, but how it can thrive in such situations.


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Simona Mazzarino is a Data Scientist at Clearbox AI. In this blog, she writes about Natural Language Processing, Text Mining and Text Generation.