Exploring the Use of Adversarial Learning in Improving Model Robustness

Tarak Ram 22 Jun, 2023 • 9 min read


Machine learning models have come a long way in the past few decades but still face several challenges, including robustness. Robustness refers to the ability of a model to work well on unseen data, an essential requirement for real-world applications. Adversarial learning is a promising approach for addressing this challenge and has recently gained significant attention. This article explores the use of adversarial learning in improving the robustness of machine learning models.

Learning Objectives

  • To understand the concept of adversarial learning and its role in improving the robustness of machine learning models.
  • To classify adversarial attacks on machine learning models into white-box and black-box attacks.
  • To provide real-life examples of the application of adversarial learning.
  • To explain the adversarial training process in TensorFlow and its implementation in code.
  • To evaluate the benefits and limitations of adversarial learning in improving the robustness of machine learning models.
  • To provide guidance on the trade-offs between the benefits and limitations of adversarial learning for determining the best approach for improving the robustness of machine learning models.
  • To summarize the key takeaways of adversarial learning and its role in ensuring the accuracy of machine learning models.

This article was published as a part of the Data Science Blogathon.

What is Adversarial Learning?

It is a machine learning technique that involves training models to be robust against adversarial examples. The examples are intentionally designed inputs created to mislead the model into making inaccurate and wrong predictions. For instance, in computer vision tasks, an adversarial example could be an image that has been manipulated in a way that is barely noticeable to the human eye but leads to misclassification by the model.

Adversarial Learning

It is based on the idea that models trained on adversarial examples are more robust to real-world variations and distortions in the data. This is because it can cover various variations and distortions, making the model more resistant to these variations.

Examples of Adversarial Learning

Examples of adversarial machine learning include:

Adversarial Image Examples

An attacker can manipulate an image classification model to misclassify it by adding carefully crafted perturbations to an image. For example, adding imperceptible noise to an image of a panda can cause a model to classify it as a different animal, like a gibbon.

Adversarial Text Examples

An attacker can fool natural language processing models by making subtle modifications to a piece of text. For instance, changing a few words in a spam email can bypass email filters and make it appear legitimate.

Adversarial Malware Examples

Attackers can generate malicious code that evades detection by antivirus software. By altering the structure or content of the code, they can create malware that is difficult to identify and block.

Adversarial Attacks on Reinforcement Learning

In reinforcement learning, attackers can manipulate the reward signals or input observations to mislead the learning process. This can lead to unexpected or undesirable behaviors in autonomous systems such as autonomous vehicles or game-playing agents.

Adversarial Attacks on Machine Learning Models

Adversarial Attacks on Machine Learning Models

Its attacks on machine learning models can be classified into two categories: white-box attacks and black-box attacks.

White-Box Attacks

In a white-box attack, the attacker has complete knowledge of the targeted machine learning model, including its architecture, parameters, and training data. They can directly access and analyze the model to craft adversarial examples. With this information, the attacker can exploit vulnerabilities in the model and generate specific inputs that deceive the model’s predictions. White-box attacks are typically more powerful because of the extensive knowledge available to the attacker.

Black-Box Attacks

In a black-box attack, the attacker has limited or no knowledge of the targeted model’s internal details. They can only query the model with inputs and observe the corresponding outputs. The attacker aims to generate adversarial examples without having access to the model’s parameters or training data. Black-box attacks often involve techniques such as transferability, where adversarial examples crafted for one model are transferred to a different but similar model. The attacker leverages the observed behavior of the target model to generate inputs that can fool it.

Types of Adversarial Attacks

There are several types of adversarial attacks that can be launched against machine learning models. Here are some common types:

  1. Evasion Attacks: These attacks aim to manipulate input data in a way that causes misclassification or alters the model’s output. Examples include the Fast Gradient Sign Method (FGSM) and Iterative FGSM (I-FGSM).
  2. Poisoning Attacks: In poisoning attacks, an attacker introduces malicious data into the training set to manipulate the model’s behavior. This can be done by injecting specially crafted samples or by modifying existing training data.
  3. Model Inversion Attacks: Model inversion attacks attempt to reconstruct sensitive information about the training data or inputs by exploiting the model’s output. These attacks can be used to extract private information or reveal confidential data.
  4. Membership Inference Attacks: Membership inference attacks determine whether a specific sample was part of the training data used by a model. By exploiting the model’s output probabilities, an attacker can infer the membership status of a given sample.
  5. Model Extraction Attacks: In model extraction attacks, an adversary attempts to obtain a copy or approximation of the target model by querying it and generating a substitute model. This can be used to steal proprietary models or proprietary information embedded within the model.
Fast Gradient Sign Method (FGSM)FGSM calculates the gradient of the loss function with respect to the input data and perturbs the input by a small amount in the direction that maximizes the loss.
Iterative FGSM (I-FGSM)I-FGSM is an iterative variant of FGSM, where multiple iterations are performed, each perturbing the input data by a small amount in the direction of the gradient.
Jacobian-based Saliency Map Attack (JSMA)JSMA identifies the most salient features of the input data by analyzing the Jacobian matrix and modifies these features to generate adversarial examples.
DeepFoolDeepFool iteratively finds the minimal perturbation required to move an input sample across the decision boundary of a model, gradually shifting the input towards misclassification.
Carlini and Wagner (C&W) AttackC&W Attack formulates the adversarial attack as an optimization problem, aiming to find the minimum perturbation that leads to misclassification while considering a margin of safety.
Universal PerturbationUniversal Perturbation generates a single perturbation that can be applied to any input data to cause misclassification, making it highly transferable across different samples.

Why is Adversarial Learning Important for Improving Model Robustness?

Adversarial Learning Importance for Improving Model Robustness

It is important for improving model robustness because it helps the model to generalize better. This is because the model is exposed to a wide range of variations and distortions during training, which makes it more robust to unseen data. Additionally, adversarial learning helps the model to identify and adapt to the structure of the data, which is essential and critical for robustness.

It is also essential because it helps to detect weaknesses in the model and provides insights into how the model can be improved. For example, if a specific type of adversarial example consistently misclassifies a model, it may indicate that it is not robust to that type of variation. This information can be used to improve the model’s robustness.

How to Incorporate Adversarial Learning into a Machine Learning Model?

Incorporating adversarial learning into a machine learning model requires two steps: generating adversarial examples and incorporating these examples into the training process.

Generating Adversarial Examples

It can be generated using many methods, including gradient-based methods, genetic algorithms, and reinforcement learning. Gradient-based methods are the most commonly used. They involve computing the gradient of the loss function concerning the input and then modifying the information in the direction that increases the loss.

Incorporating Adversarial Examples into the Training Process

Its examples can be incorporated into the training process: adversarial training and adversarial augmentation. It involves using adversarial examples during training to update the model parameters. In contrast, adversarial augmentation involves adding adversarial examples to the training data to improve the robustness of the model.

Its augmentation is a simple and effective approach widely used in practice. The idea is to add adversarial examples to the training data and then train the model on the augmented data. The model is trained to predict the correct class label for both the original and adversarial examples, making it more robust to variations and distortions in the data.

Real-life Examples of Adversarial Learning

Real-life Examples of Adversarial Learning

It has been applied to various machine learning tasks, including computer vision, speech recognition, and natural language processing.

In computer vision, It has been used to improve the robustness of image classification models. For example, it has been used to improve the robustness of convolutional neural networks (CNNs), leading to improved accuracy on unseen data.

In speech recognition, adversarial learning has improved the robustness of automatic speech recognition (ASR) systems. Adversarial examples in this domain are designed to alter the input speech signal in a way that is imperceptible to humans but leads to incorrect transcriptions by the ASR system. Adversarial training has been shown to improve the robustness of ASR systems to these types of adversarial examples, resulting in improved accuracy and reliability.

In natural language processing, adversarial learning has been used to improve the robustness of sentiment analysis models. Adversarial examples in this
NLP domains are designed to manipulate the input text in a way that leads to wrong and inaccurate predictions by the model. Adversarial training has been shown to improve the robustness of the sentiment analysis models to these types of adversarial examples, resulting in improved accuracy and robustness.

Code Example: Adversarial Training in TensorFlow

It can be easily implemented in TensorFlow, a popular open-source library for machine learning. The following code example gives a understanding of how to implement adversarial training for a simple image classification model:

import tensorflow as tf
import numpy as np

# Define the model architecture
model = tf.keras.Sequential([
    tf.keras.layers.Conv2D(32, 3, activation='relu', input_shape=(28, 28, 1)),
    tf.keras.layers.Dense(64, activation='relu'),
    tf.keras.layers.Dense(10, activation='softmax')

# Compile the model

# Load the training data
(x_train, y_train), (x_test, y_test) = tf.keras.datasets.mnist.load_data()
x_train = x_train / 255.0
x_test = x_test / 255.0
x_train = np.expand_dims(x_train, -1)
x_test = np.expand_dims(x_test, -1)

# Generate adversarial examples
eps = 0.3
x_train_adv = x_train + eps * np.sign(np.random.rand(*x_train.shape) - 0.5)
x_train_adv = np.clip(x_train_adv, 0, 1)

# Train the model on both original and adversarial examples
model.fit(np.concatenate([x_train, x_train_adv]),
          np.concatenate([y_train, y_train]),

# Evaluate the model on test data
test_loss, test_acc = model.evaluate(x_test, y_test)
print('Test accuracy:', test_acc)

In this example, the examples are generated by adding random noise to the original images and then clipping the resulting adversarial images to a given range to ensure they remain within the range of valid input values. The adversarial examples are then concatenated with the original training data, and the model is trained on both original and adversarial examples. The resulting model is expected to be more robust to adversarial examples, as it has been trained to classify both original and adversarial examples correctly.


It is a powerful technique for improving the robustness of machine learning models. By training on adversarial examples, models can learn to generalize beyond their training data and become more robust to a broader range of input variations. It has been successfully applied in various domains, including speech recognition and natural language processing. Researchers and practitioners can easily integrate this technique into their machine-learning projects by implementing adversarial learning in TensorFlow.

However, it’s important to note that this type of learning is not a silver bullet for robustness. It can still fool models trained with adversarial learning, especially if the examples are generated differently than the model has seen during training. Additionally, adversarial learning may negatively impact model performance on benign examples, especially if the model is over-regularized on adversarial examples. Further research is helpful to develop more effective and scalable methods for adversarial training and to understand the trade-offs between model robustness and performance on benign examples.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What is an example of adversarial learning?

A. An example of adversarial learning is when an attacker manipulates input data to mislead a machine learning model, causing it to make incorrect predictions.  

Q2. What is adversarial learning in machine learning?

A. Adversarial learning is a technique where models are trained against malicious attempts to exploit vulnerabilities. 

Q3. How does adversarial learning work?

A. It works by iteratively adjusting the input to find weaknesses in the model’s decision-making.

Q4. What is an example of an adversarial attack?

A. An example of an adversarial attack is adding subtle perturbations to an image that causes an image classifier to misclassify it.

Key Takeaways

  1. It improves the robustness of machine learning models by training on adversarial examples.
  2. Its training in TensorFlow involves generating adversarial examples and concatenating them with original training data.
  3. It has various applications in real-life domains, including speech recognition, NLP, and image classification.
  4. It has limitations like potential ineffectiveness and is expensive to compute.
  5. Evaluating the trade-offs between the benefits and limitations is essential to improve machine learning models’ robustness.
  6. Thorough evaluation & consideration of trade-offs can ensure the capability of machine learning models to provide accurate results even in the presence of adversarial inputs.

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Tarak Ram 22 Jun 2023

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