Machine learning plays a role in many deployed decision systems, often in ways that are difficult or impossible to understand by human stakeholders. Explaining, in a human-understandable way, the relationship between the input and output of machine learning models is essential to the development of trustworthy machine-learning-based systems. A burgeoning body of research seeks to define the goals and methods of explainability in machine learning. In this paper, we seek to review and categorize research on counterfactual explanations, a specific class of explanation that provides a link between what could have happened had input to a model been changed in a particular way. Modern approaches to counterfactual explainability in machine learning draw connections to the established legal doctrine in many countries, making them appealing to fielded systems in high-impact areas such as finance and healthcare. Thus, we design a rubric with desirable properties of counterfactual explanation algorithms and comprehensively evaluate all currently-proposed algorithms against that rubric. Our rubric provides easy comparison and comprehension of the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches and serves as an introduction to major research themes in this field. We also identify gaps and discuss promising research directions in the space of counterfactual explainability.
There has been a growing interest in model-agnostic methods that can make deep learning models more transparent and explainable to a user. Some researchers recently argued that for a machine to achieve a certain degree of human-level explainability, this machine needs to provide human causally understandable explanations, also known as causability. A specific class of algorithms that have the potential to provide causability are counterfactuals. This paper presents an in-depth systematic review of the diverse existing body of literature on counterfactuals and causability for explainable artificial intelligence. We performed an LDA topic modelling analysis under a PRISMA framework to find the most relevant literature articles. This analysis resulted in a novel taxonomy that considers the grounding theories of the surveyed algorithms, together with their underlying properties and applications in real-world data. This research suggests that current model-agnostic counterfactual algorithms for explainable AI are not grounded on a causal theoretical formalism and, consequently, cannot promote causability to a human decision-maker. Our findings suggest that the explanations derived from major algorithms in the literature provide spurious correlations rather than cause/effects relationships, leading to sub-optimal, erroneous or even biased explanations. This paper also advances the literature with new directions and challenges on promoting causability in model-agnostic approaches for explainable artificial intelligence.
Feature attributions are a common paradigm for model explanations due to their simplicity in assigning a single numeric score for each input feature to a model. In the actionable recourse setting, wherein the goal of the explanations is to improve outcomes for model consumers, it is often unclear how feature attributions should be correctly used. With this work, we aim to strengthen and clarify the link between actionable recourse and feature attributions. Concretely, we propose a variant of SHAP, CoSHAP, that uses counterfactual generation techniques to produce a background dataset for use within the marginal (a.k.a. interventional) Shapley value framework. We motivate the need within the actionable recourse setting for careful consideration of background datasets when using Shapley values for feature attributions, alongside the requirement for monotonicity, with numerous synthetic examples. Moreover, we demonstrate the efficacy of CoSHAP by proposing and justifying a quantitative score for feature attributions, counterfactual-ability, showing that as measured by this metric, CoSHAP is superior to existing methods when evaluated on public datasets using monotone tree ensembles.
Recent work on interpretability in machine learning and AI has focused on the building of simplified models that approximate the true criteria used to make decisions. These models are a useful pedagogical device for teaching trained professionals how to predict what decisions will be made by the complex system, and most importantly how the system might break. However, when considering any such model it's important to remember Box's maxim that "All models are wrong but some are useful." We focus on the distinction between these models and explanations in philosophy and sociology. These models can be understood as a "do it yourself kit" for explanations, allowing a practitioner to directly answer "what if questions" or generate contrastive explanations without external assistance. Although a valuable ability, giving these models as explanations appears more difficult than necessary, and other forms of explanation may not have the same trade-offs. We contrast the different schools of thought on what makes an explanation, and suggest that machine learning might benefit from viewing the problem more broadly.
Work in Counterfactual Explanations tends to focus on the principle of ``the closest possible world'' that identifies small changes leading to the desired outcome. In this paper we argue that while this approach might initially seem intuitively appealing it exhibits shortcomings not addressed in the current literature. First, a counterfactual example generated by the state-of-the-art systems is not necessarily representative of the underlying data distribution, and may therefore prescribe unachievable goals(e.g., an unsuccessful life insurance applicant with severe disability may be advised to do more sports). Secondly, the counterfactuals may not be based on a ``feasible path'' between the current state of the subject and the suggested one, making actionable recourse infeasible (e.g., low-skilled unsuccessful mortgage applicants may be told to double their salary, which may be hard without first increasing their skill level). These two shortcomings may render counterfactual explanations impractical and sometimes outright offensive. To address these two major flaws, first of all, we propose a new line of Counterfactual Explanations research aimed at providing actionable and feasible paths to transform a selected instance into one that meets a certain goal. Secondly, we propose FACE: an algorithmically sound way of uncovering these ``feasible paths'' based on the shortest path distances defined via density-weighted metrics. Our approach generates counterfactuals that are coherent with the underlying data distribution and supported by the ``feasible paths'' of change, which are achievable and can be tailored to the problem at hand.