Perspective | Published:

Stop explaining black box machine learning models for high stakes decisions and use interpretable models instead


Black box machine learning models are currently being used for high-stakes decision making throughout society, causing problems in healthcare, criminal justice and other domains. Some people hope that creating methods for explaining these black box models will alleviate some of the problems, but trying to explain black box models, rather than creating models that are interpretable in the first place, is likely to perpetuate bad practice and can potentially cause great harm to society. The way forward is to design models that are inherently interpretable. This Perspective clarifies the chasm between explaining black boxes and using inherently interpretable models, outlines several key reasons why explainable black boxes should be avoided in high-stakes decisions, identifies challenges to interpretable machine learning, and provides several example applications where interpretable models could potentially replace black box models in criminal justice, healthcare and computer vision.

A preprint version of the article is available at ArXiv.

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The author thanks F. Wang, T. Wang, C. Chen, O. Li, A. Barnett, T. Dietterich, M. Seltzer, E. Angelino, N. Larus-Stone, E. Mannshart, M. Gupta and several others who helped my thought processes in various ways, and particularly B. Ustun, R. Parr, R. Holte and my father, S. Rudin, who went to considerable efforts to provide thoughtful comments and discussion. The author acknowledges funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, NIH, NSF, DARPA, the Lord Foundation of North Carolina and MIT-Lincoln Laboratory.

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Correspondence to Cynthia Rudin.

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Fig. 1: A fictional depiction of the accuracy–interpretability trade-off.
Fig. 2: Saliency does not explain anything except where the network is looking.
Fig. 3: Image from the authors of ref. 48, indicating that parts of the test image on the left are similar to prototypical parts of training examples.