Maybe a noobs query, but recently I have seen a surge of papers w.r.t contrastive learning (a subset of semi-supervised learning).

Some of the prominent and recent research papers which I read, which detailed this approach are:

Could you guys give a detailed explanation of this approach vs transfer learning and others? Also, why it's gaining traction amongst the ML research community?


2 Answers 2


Contrastive learning is very intuitive. If I ask you to find the matching animal in the photo below, you can do so quite easily. You understand the animal on left is a "cat" and you want to find another "cat" image on the right side. So, you can contrast between similar and dissimilar things.

enter image description here

Contrastive learning is an approach to formulate this task of finding similar and dissimilar things for a machine. You can train a machine learning model to classify between similar and dissimilar images. There are various choices to make ranging from:

  1. Encoder Architecture: To convert the image into representations
  2. Similarity measure between two images: mean squared error, cosine similarity, content loss
  3. Generating the Training Pairs: manual annotation, self-supervised methods

This blog post explains the intuition behind contrastive learning and how it is applied in recent papers like SimCLR in more detail.

  • $\begingroup$ How is contrastive learning is different from word2vec negative sampling? It seems like the same idea. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 14:18
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Conceptually, they are pretty similar. In word2vec, you take words coming in same context as positive pairs and other random words as the negative pair. In computer vision, you can take 2 augmentations of the same image as the positive pair and augmentation of some other image as the negative pair. Also, different loss functions are used depending on the paper. The paper SimCLR I mentioned uses the “NT-Xent” (Normalized Temperature-Scaled Cross-Entropy Loss). $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ "Similarity measure between two images" how much of this depends on using the measure where the the image's loading on the embedding/representation is used to calculate similarity (rather than the raw pixel distance between the two images)? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ are t-SNE/UMAP distances often used to measure "contrast"? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 10:27

Contrastive learning is a framework that learns similar/dissimilar representations from data that are organized into similar/dissimilar pairs. This can be formulated as a dictionary look-up problem.

Both MoCo and SimCLR use varients of a contrastive loss function, like InfoNCE from the paper Representation Learning with Contrastive Predictive Coding

\begin{eqnarray*} \mathcal{L}_{q,k^+,\{k^-\}}=-log\frac{exp(q\cdot k^+/\tau)}{exp(q\cdot k^+/\tau)+\sum\limits_{k^-}exp(q\cdot k^-/\tau)} \end{eqnarray*}

Here q is a query representation, $k^+$ is a representation of the positive (similar) key sample, and ${k^−}$ are representations of the negative (dissimilar) key samples. $\tau$ is a temperature hyper-parameter. In the instance discrimination pretext task (used by MoCo and SimCLR), a query and a key form a positive pair if they are data-augmented versions of the same image, and otherwise form a negative pair. SimCLR vs MoCo

The contrastive loss can be minimized by various mechanisms that differ in how the keys are maintained.

In an end-to-end mechanism (Fig. 1a), the negative keys are from the same batch and updated end-to-end by back-propagation. SimCLR, is based on this mechanism and requires a large batch to provide a large set of negatives.

In the MoCo mechanism i.e. Momentum Contrast (Fig. 1b), the negative keys are maintained in a queue, and only the queries and positive keys are encoded in each training batch.

Quoted from a recent research paper, Improved Baselines with Momentum Contrastive Learning @ https://arxiv.org/abs/2003.04297


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