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How to achieve explainability in AI models

At its core, AI is a complex modeling process with layers of information. In order to be able to explain the algorithm's decision-making process, start with its input data.

When machine learning models deliver problematic results, it can often happen in ways that humans can't make sense of -- and this becomes dangerous when there are no limitations of the model, particularly for high-stakes decisions. Without straightforward and simple tools that highlight explainability in AI models, organizations will continue to struggle in implementing AI algorithms. Explainable AI refers to the process of making it easier for humans to understand how a given model generates the results it does and planning for cases when the results should be second-guessed.

AI developers need to incorporate explainability techniques into their workflows as part of their overall modeling operations. AI explainability can refer to the process of creating algorithms for teasing apart how black box models deliver results or the process of translating these results to different types of people. Data science managers working on explainable AI should keep tabs on the data used in models, strike a balance between accuracy and explainability, and focus on the end user.

Opening the black box

Traditional rule-based AI systems included explainability in AI as part of models, since humans would typically handcraft the inputs to output. But deep learning techniques using semi-autonomous neural-network models can't provide a model's results map to an intended goal.

Researchers are working to build learning algorithms that generate explainable AI systems from data. Currently, however, most of the dominant learning algorithms do not yield interpretable AI systems, said Ankur Taly, head of data science at Fiddler Labs, an explainable AI tools provider.

"This results in black box ML techniques, which may generate accurate AI systems, but it's harder to trust them since we don't know how these systems' outputs are generated," he said. 

AI explainability often describes post-hoc processes that attempt to explain the behavior of AI systems, rather than alter their structure. Other machine learning model properties like accuracy are straightforward to measure, but there are no corresponding simple metrics for explainability. Thus, the quality of an explanation or interpretation of an AI system needs to be assessed in an application-specific manner. It's also important for practitioners to understand the assumptions and limitations of the techniques they use for implementing explainability.

"While it is better to have some transparency rather than none, we've seen teams fool themselves into a false sense of security by wiring an off-the-shelf technique without understanding how the technique works," Taly said. 

Start with the data

The results of a machine learning model could be explained by the training data itself, or how a neural network interprets a dataset. Machine learning models often start with data labeled by humans. Data scientists can sometimes explain the way a model is behaving by looking at the data it was trained on.

"What a particular neural network derives from a dataset are patterns that it finds that may or may not be obvious to humans," said Aaron Edell, director of applied AI at AI platform Veritone.

But it can be hard to understand what good data looks like. Biased training data can show in up a variety of ways. A machine learning model trained to identify sheep might only come from pictures of farms, causing the model to misinterpret sheep in other settings, or white clouds on farm pictures as sheep. Facial recognition software can be trained on company faces -- but if those faces are mostly male or white, the data is biased.

One good practice is to train machine learning models on data that should be indistinguishable from the data the model will be expected to run on. For example, a face recognition model that identified how long Jennifer Aniston appears in every episode of Friends should be trained on frames of actual episodes rather than Google image search results for 'Jennifer Aniston.' In a similar vein, it's OK to train models on publicly available datasets, but generic pre-trained models as a service will be harder to explain and change if necessary.   

Balancing explainability, accuracy and risk

The real problem with implementing explainability in AI is that there are major trade-offs between accuracy, transparency and risk in different types of AI models, said Matthew Nolan, senior director of decision sciences at Pegasystems. More opaque models may be more accurate, but fail the explainability test. Other types of models like decision trees and Bayesian networks are considered more transparent but are less powerful and complex.

"These models are critical today as businesses deal with regulations such as like GDPR that require explainability in AI-based systems, but this sometimes will sacrifice performance," said Nolan.

Focusing on transparency can cost a business, but turning to more opaque models can leave a model unchecked and might expose the consumer, customer and the business to additional risks or breaches.

To address this gap, platform vendors are starting to embed transparency settings into their AI tool sets. This can make it easier to companies to adjust the acceptable amount of opaqueness or transparency thresholds used in their AI models and gives enterprises the control to adjust the models based on their needs or on corporate governance policy so they can manage risk, maintain regulatory compliance and ensure customers a differentiated experience in a responsible way.

Data scientists should also identify when the complexity of new models are getting in the way of explainability. Yifei Huang, data science manager at sales engagement platform Outreach, said there are often simpler models available for attaining the same performance, but machine learning practitioners have a tendency toward using more fancy and advanced models.

Focus on the user

Explainability means different things to a highly skilled data scientist compared to a call center worker who may need to make decisions based on an explanation. The task of implementing explainable AI is not just to foster trust in explanations but also help the end users make decisions, said Ankkur Teredesai, CTO and co-founder at KenSci, an AI healthcare platform.

Often data scientists make the mistake of thinking about explanations from the perspective of a computer scientist, when the end user is a domain expert who may need just enough information to make a decision. For a model that predicts the risk of a patient being readmitted, a physician may want an explanation of the underlying medical reasons, while a discharge planner may want to know the likelihood of readmission to plan accordingly.

Teredesai said there is still no general guideline for explainability, particularly for different types of users. It's also challenging to integrate these explanations into the machine learning and end user workflows. End users typically need explanations as possible actions to take based on a prediction rather than just explanation as reasons, and this requires striking the right balance between focusing on prediction and explanation fidelity.

There are a variety of tools for implementing explainability on top of machine learning models which generate visualizations and technical descriptions, but these can be difficult for end users to understand, said Jen Underwood, vice president of product management at Aible, an automated machine learning platform. Supplementing visualizations with natural language explanations is a way to partially bridge the data science literacy gap. Another good practice is to directly use humans in the loop to evaluate your explanations to see if they make sense to a human, said David Fagnan, director of applied science on the Zillow Offers Analytics team. This can help lead to more accurate models through key improvements including model selection and feature engineering.

KPIs for AI risks

Enterprises should consider the specific reasons that explainable AI is important when looking towards how to measure explainability and accessibility. Teams should first and foremost establish a set of criteria for key AI risks including robustness, data privacy, bias, fairness, explainability and compliance, said Dr. Joydeep Ghosh, chief scientific officer at AI vendor CognitiveScale. It's also useful to generate appropriate metrics for key stakeholders relevant to their needs.

External organizations like AI Global can help establish measurement targets that determine acceptable operating values. AI Global is a nonprofit organization that has established the AI Trust Index, a scoring benchmarks for explainable AI that is like a FICO score. This enables firms to not only establish their own best practices, but also compare the enterprise against industry benchmarks.

When someone offers you a silver bullet explainable AI technology or solution, check whether you can have a common-grounded conversation with the AI that goes deep and scales to the needs of the application.
Mark StefikResearch Fellow, PARC, a Xerox Company

Vendors are starting to automate this process with tools for automatically scoring, measuring and reporting on risk factors across the AI operations lifecycle based on the AI Trust Index. Although the tools for explainable AI are getting better, the technology is at an early research stage with proof-of-concept prototypes, cautioned Mark Stefik, a research fellow at PARC, a Xerox Company. There are substantial technology risks and gaps in machine learning and in AI explanations, depending on the application.

"When someone offers you a silver bullet explainable AI technology or solution, check whether you can have a common-grounded conversation with the AI that goes deep and scales to the needs of the application," Stefik said.

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