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# Metalearning with Very Few Samples Per Task

*Proceedings of Thirty Seventh Conference on Learning Theory*, PMLR 247:46-93, 2024.

#### Abstract

Metalearning and multitask learning are two frameworks for solving a group of related learning tasks more efficiently than we could hope to solve each of the individual tasks on their own. In multitask learning, we are given a fixed set of related learning tasks and need to output one accurate model per task, whereas in metalearning we are given tasks that are drawn i.i.d. from a metadistribution and need to output some common information that can be easily specialized to new, previously unseen tasks from the metadistribution. In this work, we consider a binary classification setting where tasks are related by a shared representation, that is, every task $P$ of interest can be solved by a classifier of the form $f_{P} \circ h$ where $h \in \mathcal{H}$ is a map from features to some representation space that is shared across tasks, and $f_{P} \in \mathcal{F}$ is a task-specific classifier from the representation space to labels. The main question we ask in this work is how much data do we need to metalearn a good representation? Here, the amount of data is measured in terms of both the number of tasks $t$ that we need to see and the number of samples $n$ per task. We focus on the regime where the number of samples per task is extremely small. Our main result shows that, in a distribution-free setting where the feature vectors are in $\mathbb{R}^d$, the representation is a linear map from $\mathbb{R}^d \to \mathbb{R}^k$, and the task-specific classifiers are halfspaces in $\mathbb{R}^k$, we can metalearn a representation with error $\varepsilon$ using just $n = k+2$ samples per task, and $d \cdot (1/\varepsilon)^{O(k)}$ tasks. Learning with so few samples per task is remarkable because metalearning would be impossible with $k+1$ samples per task, and because we cannot even hope to learn an accurate task-specific classifier with just $k+2$ samples per task. To obtain this result, we develop a sample-and-task-complexity theory for distribution-free metalearning and multitask learning, which identifies what properties of $\mathcal{F}$ and $\mathcal{H}$ make metalearning possible with few samples per task. Our theory also yields a simple characterization of distribution-free multitask learning. Finally, we give sample-efficient reductions between metalearning and multitask learning, which, when combined with our characterization of multitask learning, give a characterization of metalearning in certain parameter regimes.