Smart Software: Boiling Down to a Binary Decision?

September 9, 2021

I read a write up which contained a nuance which is pretty much a zero or a one; that is, a binary decision. The article is “Amid a Pandemic, a Health Care Algorithm Shows Promise and Peril.” Okay, good news and bad news. The subtitle introduces the transparency issue:

A machine learning-based score designed to aid triage decisions is gaining in popularity — but lacking in transparency.

The good news? A zippy name: The Deterioration Index. I like it.

The idea is that some proprietary smart software includes explicit black boxes. The vendor identifies the basics of the method, but does not disclose the “componentized” or “containerized” features. The analogy I use in my lectures is that no one pays attention to a resistor; it just does its job. Move on.

The write up explains:

The use of algorithms to support clinical decision making isn’t new. But historically, these tools have been put into use only after a rigorous peer review of the raw data and statistical analyses used to develop them. Epic’s Deterioration Index, on the other hand, remains proprietary despite its widespread deployment. Although physicians are provided with a list of the variables used to calculate the index and a rough estimate of each variable’s impact on the score, we aren’t allowed under the hood to evaluate the raw data and calculations.

From my point of view this is now becoming a standard smart software practice. In fact, when I think of “black boxes” I conjure an image of Stanford University and the University of Washington professors, graduate students, and Google-AI types which share these outfits’ DNA. Keep the mushrooms in the cave, not out in the sun’s brilliance. I could be wrong, of course, but I think this write up touches upon what may be a matter that some want to forget.

And what is this marginalized issue?

I call it the Timnit Gebru syndrome. A tiny issue buried deep in a data set or method assumed to be A-Okay may not be. What’s the fix? An ostrich-type reaction, a chuckle from someone with droit de seigneur? Moving forward because regulators and newly-minted government initiatives designed to examine bias in AI are moving with pre-Internet speed?

I think this article provides an interest case example about zeros and ones. Where’s the judgment? In a black box? Embedded and out of reach.

Stephen E Arnold, September 9, 2021

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