People who apply for a loan from a bank or credit card company, and are turned down, are owed an explanation of why that happened. It’s a good idea – because it can help teach people how to repair their damaged credit – and it’s a federal law, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Getting an answer wasn’t much of a problem in years past, when humans made those decisions. But today, as artificial intelligence systems increasingly assist or replace people making credit decisions, getting those explanations has become much more difficult.
Traditionally, a loan officer who rejected an application could tell a would-be borrower there was a problem with their income level, or employment history, or whatever the issue was. But computerized systems that use complex machine learning models are difficult to explain, even for experts.
Consumer credit decisions are just one way this problem arises. Similar concerns exist in health care, online marketing and even criminal justice. My own interest in this area began when a research group I was part of discovered gender bias in how online ads were targeted, but could not explain why it happened.
All those industries, and many others, who use machine learning to analyze processes and make decisions have a little over a year to get a lot better at explaining how their systems work. In May 2018, the new European Union General Data Protection Regulation takes effect, including a section giving people a right to get an explanation for automated decisions that affect their lives. What shape should these explanations take, and can we actually provide them?