Know-how is not interpretable so algorithms are not interpretable

by Sebastian Benthall

I happened upon Hildreth and Kimble’s “The duality of knowledge” (2002) earlier this morning while writing this and have found it thought-provoking through to lunch.

What’s interesting is that it is (a) 12 years old, (b) a rather straightforward analysis of information technology, expert systems, ‘knowledge management’, etc. in light of solid post-Enlightenment thinking about the nature of knowledge, and (c) an anticipation of the problems of ‘interpretability’ that were a couple months ago at least an active topic of academic discussion. Or so I hear.

This is the paper’s abstract:

Knowledge Management (KM) is a field that has attracted much attention both in academic and practitioner circles. Most KM projects appear to be primarily concerned with knowledge that can be quantified and can be captured, codified and stored – an approach more deserving of the label Information Management.

Recently there has been recognition that some knowledge cannot be quantified and cannot be captured, codified or stored. However, the predominant approach to the management of this knowledge remains to try to convert it to a form that can be handled using the ‘traditional’ approach.

In this paper, we argue that this approach is flawed and some knowledge simply cannot be captured. A method is needed which recognises that knowledge resides in people: not in machines or documents. We will argue that KM is essentially about people and the earlier technology driven approaches, which failed to consider this, were bound to be limited in their success. One possible way forward is offered by Communities of Practice, which provide an environment for people to develop knowledge through interaction with others in an environment where knowledge is created nurtured and sustained.

The authors point out that Knowledge Management (KM) is an extension of the earlier program of Artificiali Intelligence, depends on a model of knowledge that maintains that knowledge can be explicitly represented and hence stored and transfered, and propose an alternative way of thinking about things based on the Communities of Practice framework.

A lot of their analysis is about the failures of “expert systems”, which is a term that has fallen out of use but means basically the same thing as the contemporary uncomputational scholarly use of ‘algorithm’. An expert system was a computer program designed to make decisions about things. Broadly speaking, a search engine is a kind of expert system. What’s changed are the particular techniques and algorithms that such systems employ, and their relationship with computing and sensing hardware.

Here’s what Hildreth and Kimble have to say about expert systems in 2002:

Viewing knowledge as a duality can help to explain the failure of some KM initiatives. When the harder aspects are abstracted in isolation the representation is incomplete: the softer aspects of knowledge must also be taken into account. Hargadon (1998) gives the example of a server holding past projects, but developers do not look there for solutions. As they put it, ‘the important knowledge is all in people’s heads’, that is the solutions on the server only represent the harder aspects of the knowledge. For a complete picture, the softer aspects are also necessary. Similarly, the expert systems of the 1980s can be seen as failing because they concentrated solely on the harder aspects of knowledge. Ignoring the softer aspects meant the picture was incomplete and the system could not be moved from the environment in which it was developed.

However, even knowledge that is ‘in people’s heads’ is not sufficient – the interactive aspect of Cook and Seely Brown’s (1999) ‘knowing’ must also be taken into account. This is one of the key aspects to the management of the softer side to knowledge.

In 2002, this kind of argument was seen as a valuable critique of artificial intelligence and the practices based on it as a paradigm. But already by 2002 this paradigm was falling away. Statistical computing, reinforcement learning, decision tree bagging, etc. were already in use at this time. These methods are “softer” in that they don’t require the “hard” concrete representations of the earlier artificial intelligence program, which I believe by that time was already refered to as “Good Old Fashioned AI” or GOFAI by a number of practicioners.

(I should note–that’s a term I learned while studying AI as an undergraduate in 2005.)

So throughout the 90’s and the 00’s, if not earlier, ‘AI’ transformed into ‘machine learning’ and become the implementation of ‘soft’ forms of knowledge. These systems are built to learn to perform a task optimally based flexibly on feedback from past performance. They are in fact the cybernetic systems imagined by Norbert Wiener.

Perplexing, then, is the contemporary problem that the models created by these machine learning algorithms are opaque to their creators. These models were created using techniques that were designed precisely to solve the problems that systems based on explicit, communicable knowledge were meant to solve.

If you accept the thesis that contemporary ‘algorithms’-driven systems are well-designed implementations of ‘soft’ knowledge systems, then you get some interesting conclusions.

First, forget about interpeting the learned models of these systems and testing them for things like social discrimination, which is apparently in vogue. The right place to focus attention is on the function being optimized. All these feedback-based systems–whether they be based on evolutionary algorithms, or convergence on local maxima, or reinforcement learning, or whatever–are designed to optimize some goal function. That goal function is the closest thing you will get to an explicit representation of the purpose of the algorithm. It may change over time, but it should be coded there explicitly.

Interestingly, this is exactly the sense of ‘purpose’ that Wiener proposed could be applied to physical systems in his landmark essay, published with Rosenbleuth and Bigelow, “Purpose, Behavior, and Teleology.” In 1943. Sly devil.

EDIT: An excellent analysis of how fairness can be represented as an explicit goal function can be found in Dwork et al. 2011.

Second, because what the algorithms is designed to optimize is generally going to be something like ‘maximize ad revenue’ and not anything particularly explicitly pernicious like ‘screw over the disadvantaged people’, this line of inquiry will raise some interesting questions about, for example, the relationship between capitalism and social justice. By “raise some interesting questions”, I mean, “reveal some uncomfortable truths everyone is already aware of”. Once it becomes clear that the whole discussion of “algorithms” and their inscrutability is just a way of talking about societal problems and entrenched political interests without talking about it, it will probably be tabled due to its political infeasibility.

That is (and I guess this is the third point) unless somebody can figure out how to explicitly define the social justice goals of the activists/advocates into a goal function that could be implemented by one of these soft-touch expert systems. That would be rad. Whether anybody would be interested in using or investing in such a system is an important open question. Not a wide open question–the answer is probably “Not really”–but just open enough to let some air onto the embers of my idealism.