How AI detectives are cracking open the black box of deep learning

How AI detectives are cracking open the black box of deep learning

Jason Yosinski sits in a small glass box at Uber’s San Francisco, California, headquarters, pondering the mind of an artificial intelligence. An Uber research scientist, Yosinski is performing a kind of brain surgery on the AI running on his laptop. Like many of the AIs that will soon be powering so much of modern life, including self-driving Uber cars, Yosinski’s program is a deep neural network, with an architecture loosely inspired by the brain. And like the brain, the program is hard to understand from the outside: It’s a black box.

This particular AI has been trained, using a vast sum of labeled images, to recognize objects as random as zebras, fire trucks, and seat belts. Could it recognize Yosinski and the reporter hovering in front of the webcam? Yosinski zooms in on one of the AI’s individual computational nodes — the neurons, so to speak — to see what is prompting its response. Two ghostly white ovals pop up and float on the screen. This neuron, it seems, has learned to detect the outlines of faces. “This responds to your face and my face,” he says. “It responds to different size faces, different color faces.”

No one trained this network to identify faces. Humans weren’t labeled in its training images. Yet learn faces it did, perhaps as a way to recognize the things that tend to accompany them, such as ties and cowboy hats. The network is too complex for humans to comprehend its exact decisions. Yosinski’s probe had illuminated one small part of it, but overall, it remained opaque. “We build amazing models,” he says. “But we don’t quite understand them. And every year, this gap is going to get a bit larger.”

Each month, it seems, deep neural networks, or deep learning, as the field is also called, spread to another scientific discipline. They can predict the best way to synthesize organic molecules. They can detect genes related to autism risk. They are even changing how science itself is conducted. The AIs often succeed in what they do. But they have left scientists, whose very enterprise is founded on explanation, with a nagging question: Why, model, why?

That interpretability problem, as it’s known, is galvanizing a new generation of researchers in both industry and academia. Just as the microscope revealed the cell, these researchers are crafting tools that will allow insight into the how neural networks make decisions. Some tools probe the AI without penetrating it; some are alternative algorithms that can compete with neural nets, but with more transparency; and some use still more deep learning to get inside the black box. Taken together, they add up to a new discipline. Yosinski calls it “AI neuroscience.”

Marco Ribeiro, a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, strives to understand the black box by using a class of AI neuroscience tools called counter-factual probes. The idea is to vary the inputs to the AI — be they text, images, or anything else — in clever ways to see which changes affect the output, and how. Take a neural network that, for example, ingests the words of movie reviews and flags those that are positive. Ribeiro’s program, called Local Interpretable Model-Agnostic Explanations (LIME), would take a review flagged as positive and create subtle variations by deleting or replacing words. Those variants would then be run through the black box to see whether it still considered them to be positive. On the basis of thousands of tests, LIME can identify the words — or parts of an image or molecular structure, or any other kind of data — most important in the AI’s original judgment. The tests might reveal that the word “horrible” was vital to a panning or that “Daniel Day Lewis” led to a positive review. But although LIME can diagnose those singular examples, that result says little about the network’s overall insight.

New counterfactual methods like LIME seem to emerge each month.

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