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What is Federated Learning?

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What is Federated Learning?

The traditional method of training AI models involves setting up servers where models are trained on data, often through the use of a cloud-based computing platform. However, over the past few years an alternative form of model creation has arisen, called federated learning. Federated learning brings machine learning models to the data source, rather than bringing the data to the model. Federated learning links together multiple computational devices into a decentralized system that allows the individual devices that collect data to assist in training the model.

In a federated learning system, the various devices that are part of the learning network each have a copy of the model on the device. The different devices/clients train their own copy of the model using the client’s local data, and then the parameters/weights from the individual models are sent to a master device, or server, that aggregates the parameters and updates the global model. This training process can then be repeated until a desired level of accuracy is attained. In short, the idea behind federated learning is that none of the training data is ever transmitted between devices or between parties, only the updates related to the model are.

Federated learning can be broken down into three different steps or phases. Federated learning typically starts with a generic model that acts as a baseline and is trained on a central server. In the first step, this generic model is sent out to the application’s clients. These local copies are then trained on data generated by the client systems, learning and improving their performance.

In the second step, the clients all send their learned model parameters to the central server. This happens periodically, on a set schedule.

In the third step, the server aggregates the learned parameters when it receives them. After the parameters are aggregated, the central model is updated and shared once more with the clients. The entire process then repeats.

The benefit of having a copy of the model on the various devices is that network latencies are reduced or eliminated. The costs associated with sharing data with the server is eliminated as well. Other benefits of federate learning methods include the fact that federated learning models are privacy preserved, and model responses are personalized for the user of the device.

Examples of federated learning models include recommendation engines, fraud detection models, and medical models. Media recommendation engines, of the type used by Netflix or Amazon, could be trained on data gathered from thousands of users. The client devices would train their own separate models and the central model would learn to make better predictions, even though the individual data points would be unique to the different users. Similarly, fraud detection models used by banks can be trained on patterns of activity from many different devices, and a handful of different banks could collaborate to train a common model. In terms of a medical federated learning model, multiple hospitals could team up to train a common model that could recognize potential tumors through medical scans.

Types of Federated Learning

Federated learning schemas typically fall into one of two different classes: multi-party systems and single-party systems. Single-party federated learning systems are called “single-party” because only a single entity is responsible for overseeing the capture and flow of data across all of the client devices in the learning network. The models that exist on the client devices are trained on data with the same structure, though the data points are typically unique to the various users and devices.

In contrast to single-party systems, multi-party systems are managed by two or more entities. These entities cooperate to train a shared model by utilizing the various devices and datasets they have access to. The parameters and data structures are typically similar across the devices belonging to the multiple entities, but they don’t have to be exactly the same. Instead, pre-processing is done to standardize the inputs of the model. A neutral entity might be employed to aggregate the weights established by the devices unique to the different entities.

Frameworks for Federated Learning

Popular frameworks used for federated learning include Tensorflow Federated, Federated AI Technology Enabler (FATE), and PySyft. PySyft is an open-source federated learning library based on the deep learning library PyTorch. PySyft is intended to ensure private, secure deep learning across servers and agents using encrypted computation. Meanwhile, Tensorflow Federated is another open-source framework built on Google’s Tensorflow platform. In addition to enabling users to create their own algorithms, Tensorflow Federated allows users to simulate a number of included federated learning algorithms on their own models and data. Finally, FATE is also open-source framework designed by Webank AI, and it’s intended to provide the Federated AI ecosystem with a secure computing framework.

Federated Learning Challenges

As federated learning is still fairly nascent, a number of challenges still have to be negotiated in order for it to achieve its full potential. The training capabilities of edge devices, data labeling and standardization, and model convergence are potential roadblocks for federated learning approaches.

The computational abilities of the edge devices, when it comes to local training, need to be considered when designing federated learning approaches. While most smartphones, tablets, and other IoT compatible devices are capable of training machine learning models, this typically hampers the performance of the device. Compromises will have to be made between model accuracy and device performance.

Labeling and standardizing data is another challenge that federated learning systems must overcome. Supervised learning models require training data that is clearly and consistently labeled, which can be difficult to do across the many client devices that are part of the system. For this reason, it’s important to develop model data pipelines that automatically apply labels in a standardized way based on events and user actions.

Model convergence time is another challenge for federated learning, as federated learning models typically take longer to converge than locally trained models. The number of devices involved in the training adds an element of unpredictability to the model training, as connection issues, irregular updates, and even different application use times can contribute to increased convergence time and decreased reliability. For this reason, federated learning solutions are typically most useful when they provide meaningful advantages over centrally training a model, such as instances where datasets are extremely large and distributed.

Photo: Jeromemetronome via Wikimedia Commons, CC By S.A. 4.0 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Federated_learning_process_central_case.png)

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Blogger and programmer with specialties in Machine Learning and Deep Learning topics. Daniel hopes to help others use the power of AI for social good.