Best Practices

What is Data Annotation?

Almost nothing in human history has ever moved at this frantic pace. AI and all its related fields, gadgets and trinkets that is. It is absolutely mind-blowing. If it is eerily swift to watch its progress from the USA, imagine what I feel while seeing it unfold from the tech remoteness of Argentina, South America.
Romina C. Cinquemani
8 min
Table of Contents

Almost nothing in human history has ever moved at this frantic pace. AI and all its related fields, gadgets and trinkets that is. It is absolutely mind-blowing. If it is eerily swift to watch its progress from the USA, imagine what I feel while seeing it unfold from the tech remoteness of Argentina, South America. Hear me out. It seems science fiction has taken over the planet. Damned my luck, this industrial revolution does not come with a Victorian Steampunk ingredient. At least I would have had a glimpse of aesthetic candy for my eye and mind.

Then again, one cannot choose how our industrial revolutions (or is it?) unfold. We can follow either of these two paths: sit on the curb and stare at it, as if it were a tornado in a Kansas morning. Or we can saddle up and flow with these brutal new tidal waves. So, I am guessing, “giddy up!”

A New Kid on the Tech Block: Data Annotation

Machine learning models, the heart and soul of AI, are filled with gigantic datasets. In order for those datasets to be useful and applicable, they need sorting out, organizing, labeling, and even perhaps a little adapting. Algorithms need polished datasets so they can, in turn, receive this now organized information in order to learn from it, and consequently produce more accurate predictions.

Hence, the actual process of Data Annotation involves labeling data, so that it is no longer confusing or misleading. The machine learning model uses annotated data to learn from them, regardless of format or type of data. We “annotate” data by adding tags, labels or metadata to raw data. For instance, the following are some of elements that can and need annotation: text, images, audio, and video.

Without properly annotated data, it would not be possible for advanced machine learning models to interpret and understand any real-world scenarios. Their algorithms rely on massive volumes of labeled data to properly identify patterns, and then make “somewhat informed” decisions.

Types of Data Annotation

There are several types of data annotation and each of them responds to a specific kind of data and application. Each type of annotation plays a critical role in training machine learning models to perform tasks like language translation, object detection, and voice recognition. Side note: I have seen an AI actual robot folding laundry somewhere in Asia, but I do not feel quite there yet.

For instance, when training a model to recognize objects in images, annotators must provide thousands of images with labels indicating what each object is. This allows the model to learn the features that distinguish different objects. Consequently, this training will help the model recognize objects in extrapolated scenarios.

Quite similarly, for text-based models, annotators tag sentences with sentiment labels, so that the model will then be able to understand and predict those sentiments in new data. Some of these labels could be: positive, negative, neutral or others.

Audio annotation is vital for voice recognition systems. Transcribing speech includes converting spoken words into written text, and this can be applied in virtual assistants and transcription services, to name only a couple. In the same area, speaker identification labels can be added to different segments of audio according to who is speaking, which is rather useful in scenarios like meeting transcription.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) models can learn from the annotation of linguistic features like syntax and grammar. As an example, tagging words with their corresponding parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) helps the model understand sentence structure. Especially in a language such as English. It might definitely prove a bit trickier in Spanish, due to all the literary licenses used when writing poetry, for instance. 

The area belonging to Named entity recognition (NER) includes identifying proper names within text, such as people, locations, and organizations. This is a fundamental feature for applications such as chatbots and search engines.

Video annotation undoubtedly requires a multi-faceted approach including all the above mentioned techniques. For example, annotating a video for an autonomous vehicle might involve identifying motion patterns, labeling objects in each frame, and transcribing speech or sounds. The model needs to understand the context and interactions within the video, so that it can make safer predictions in real-time scenarios.

Human Data Annotators = Silent Superheroes

As of today, human data annotators are the individuals who carefully label the data. Their meticulous work is fundamental to ensure high quality and accuracy in annotations. Faulty or incorrect annotation, can surely take down the model like a proper “house of cards”. The AI model is as healthy and robust as its structure, but also as its training quality.

By now, there are several specialized tools and software designed to flawlessly streamline the annotation process. These are the tools annotators use in their daily tasks. The main aspect annotators have to understand is the specific context and purpose of the data on which they are working. The reason is simple: their labels are bound to be accurate and meaningful. Not one label can be taken for granted. There are no small tasks. Every detail does matter. As you might have guessed by now, this relentless race makes this kind of job rather time-consuming and intensive. And datasets are 99,9% “large datasets”. Nothing easy, small or slow in this game. The annotators’ precision has a direct impact on the reliability of the algorithms based on this data.

Countless training sessions await data annotators in terms of updated tools, project basis guidelines and practice with example data. In terms of requirements, first and foremost, an almost surgical eye for detail is crucial in this role. Almost full understanding of the subject matter at hand is a must as well.

Despite the daily advancement in annotation tools, as of today (no guarantees here), the role of the human annotator seems to remain irreplaceable. There are a few human traits intrinsically powerful that cannot be replicated by an AI model. As humans we can understand context, succeed in the disambiguation of confusing scenarios, and apply personal and common judgment in ways that AI currently cannot. A nice example of our superpower: a human annotator can recognize irony, sarcasm or cultural references in a text, while it would pose a mighty challenge for an AI model to identify accurately.

We All Make Mistakes, Even AI Models

Meet one of the main challenges in data annotation: maintaining consistency and accuracy across large datasets. As in every other area in life, human error and subjective judgment can generate inconsistencies which, in turn, can confuse machine learning models. Since they have no criteria-building capacities of their own.

As it happens, AI models, which even assist in the annotation process, can include errors as well. Go figure! These models may fail to capture subtle distinctions and mislabel data. This leads to inaccuracies that need to be corrected with human intervention. Some semi-automated tools can pre-label data as of now, which allows human annotators to focus on review, verification and refinement. The Holy Grail of AI models and human capabilities seems to be combining the best of both players. This would mean finding even more sophisticated solutions that blend human expertise with machine efficiency, in order to make data annotation faster and more reliable.

Data annotation is, indeed, a foundational process that makes possible the enhanced development of effective machine learning models. Although at present AI can assist in this process, human expertise and oversight are critical to help ensure accuracy and reliability.

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Romina C. Cinquemani
Spanish translator, writer, language lover, and constant life apprentice.
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