On Interpretable Models

Artificial Intelligence is everywhere today. And as intelligent systems get more ubiquitous, the need to understand their behavior becomes equally important. Maybe if you are developing an algorithm to recognize a cat-photo for fun, you don’t need to know how it works as long as it delivers the results. But if you have deployed a model to predict whether a person will default on a loan or not, and you use it to make your decisions, you better be sure you are doing the right thing – for practical, ethical AND legal reasons.

From Dictionary.com,

interpretabilityto give or provide the meaning of; explain; explicate; elucidate


Why do models need to be interpretable?

The primary reason why we need explainability in AI, is to develop a sense of understanding and trust. Think about it – the only way you would ever delegate an important task to someone else, is if you had a certain level of trust in their thought process. If for instance Siri makes an error in understanding your commands, thats fine. But now consider self-driven cars. The reason why most people would not readily sit in a self-driven car within a city, is because we cannot guarantee if it will do the right thing in every situation. Interpretability is thus crucial for building trust towards models, especially in domains like healthcare, finance and the judicial system.

Interpretability is also important while debugging problems in a model’s performance. These problems might be caused due to the algorithm itself, or the data being used to train it. And you may not really observe these issues until you deploy a compound system that uses this model. Lets take the example of Google’s Word2Vec. Word2Vec is currently one of the best algorithms for computing word-embeddings given a significant amount of text. It was originally trained on a 3 million-word corpus of Google News articles. In some research conducted by people from Boston university and Microsoft Research, they found a ton of hidden sexism in the word-embeddings generated from that dataset. For example, the framework came up with this particular analogy: “man : computer programmer :: woman : homemaker”. Funny ain’t it? This was not a problem with the algorithm itself, but a screw-up of the way news articles are usually written. Quoting the source, “Any bias contained in word embeddings like those from Word2vec is automatically passed on in any application that exploits it.”.

How do we increase interpretability of models?

There are two ways to promote interpretability when it comes to Machine Learning/AI systems: Transparency, and Post-Hoc Explainability. Algorithmic transparency would mean that you understand the way your model works on an intuitive level, with respect to the dataset you used for training. A Decision Tree, for example, is pretty transparent – in fact, you can use the paths from the root to every leaf node to decompose the Tree into the set of rules used for classification. But a deep Neural Network is not so transparent, for obvious reasons. Though you may understand linear algebra and back-propagation, you will typically not be able to make sense of the weights/biases learned by a deep-NN after training.

Transparency has two aspects: Decomposability, and Simultaneity. Decomposability would mean understanding each individual component of your model. In essence, there should not be a ‘black-box’ component of the system in your eyes. Simultaneity, on the other hand, indicates an understanding of how all these individual components work together as a whole. And the former does not necessarily imply the latter – consider an algorithm as simple as linear regression. You would probably know that if the weight with respect to a predictor is positive after training, it shows a direct proportionality to the target variable. Now, if you train a simple linear regression of Disease-risk vs Vaccination, you would most probably get a negative weight on the Vaccination variable. But if you now take tricky factors such as immunodeficiency or age (old-age or infancy) into the picture, the weight might take on a whole different value. In fact, as the number of predictor variables goes on increasing in regression, it gets more and more difficult to understand how your model will behave as a whole. And thus, the notion that a ‘simple’ model (linear regression) would be far easier to interpret than a ‘complex’ one (deep learning) is misleading.

Post-Hoc means ‘occurring after an event’. In the context of model transparency, post-hoc interpretation would mean an effort to understand its behavior after it has finished training, typically using some test inputs. Some models/algorithms inherently have the ability to ‘explain’ their behavior. For example, take k-NN classifiers. Along with the required output, you can hack (with minimal effort) the model to return the k-nearest neighbors as examples for scrutiny. This way, you get a good idea of the combination of properties that produce similar results by looking at the known training points.

Most algorithms don’t have such easy post-hoc interpretability, though. In such cases, you have to use techniques such as visualization to understand how they behave/work. For instance, you could use a dimensionality reduction technique such as t-SNE to reduce vector points to 2-3 dimensions and visualize class ‘regions’ in 2D/3D space. Essentially, you are enabling easy visualization of higher-dimensional data by embedding it in a lower-dimensional space. Saliency maps are a technique used to interpret deep neural networks. In Natural Language Processing, textual explanations are also being adopted. Since humans usually understand words better than raw numbers, providing text-based explanations makes sense. For example, in a system like LSI, you could ‘understand’ a word’s embedding by (proportionately) looking at the words that strongly belong to the latent topic(s) is most relates to.

Conclusion and further reading

I did kind-of imply that interpretability is required so that we end up trusting automated systems as much as we trust humans. But as it turns out, its not like human actions are perfectly explainable. There is a ton of research in psychology that clearly indicates that the motivations for our actions are not as clear as we ourselves tend to believe. The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel Wegner talks about how our decisions tend to be influenced by subconscious processes without us realizing it. Moreover, it seems contradictory to the ultimate aim of AI to avoid building models that we cannot ‘understand’. If there will be machine intelligence smarter than us, the likelihood of us understanding it completely is pretty slim (Terminator, anyone?).

Heres a couple of links for you to look at, if you want to read more:

  1. EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) makes interpretability a top priority.
  2. David Gunning’s summarization of the work on Explainable AI at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence.
  3. “Is Artificial Intelligence Permanently Inscrutable?” by Aaron Bornstein (Has some good discussion in the Comments section)

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