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A Causal Lens for Peeking into Black Box Predictive Models: Predictive Model Interpretation via Causal Attribution

Aria Khademi, Vasant Honavar

With the increasing adoption of predictive models trained using machine learning across a wide range of high-stakes applications, e.g., health care, security, criminal justice, finance, and education, there is a growing need for effective techniques for explaining such models and their predictions. We aim to address this problem in settings where the predictive model is a black box; That is, we can only observe the response of the model to various inputs, but have no knowledge about the internal structure of the predictive model, its parameters, the objective function, and the algorithm used to optimize the model. We reduce the problem of interpreting a black box predictive model to that of estimating the causal effects of each of the model inputs on the model output, from observations of the model inputs and the corresponding outputs. We estimate the causal effects of model inputs on model output using variants of the Rubin Neyman potential outcomes framework for estimating causal effects from observational data. We show how the resulting causal attribution of responsibility for model output to the different model inputs can be used to interpret the predictive model and to explain its predictions. We present results of experiments that demonstrate the effectiveness of our approach to the interpretation of black box predictive models via causal attribution in the case of deep neural network models trained on one synthetic data set (where the input variables that impact the output variable are known by design) and two real-world data sets: Handwritten digit classification, and Parkinson's disease severity prediction. Because our approach does not require knowledge about the predictive model algorithm and is free of assumptions regarding the black box predictive model except that its input-output responses be observable, it can be applied, in principle, to any black box predictive model.

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