From Algorithmic Fairness to QSAR Models

The topic of algorithmic fairness has started recieving a lot of attention due to the ability of predictive models to make decisions that might discriminate against certain classes of people. The reasons for this include biased training data, correlated descriptors, black box modeling methods or a combination of all three. Research into algorithmic fairness attempts to identify these causes (whether in the data or the methods used to analyze them) and alleviate the problem. See here, here and here for some interesting discussions.

Thus I recently came across a paper from Adler et al on the topic of algorithmic fairness. Fundamentally the authors were looking at descriptor influence in binary classification models. Importantly, they treat the models as black boxes and quantify the sensitivity of the model to feature subsets without retraining the model. Clearly, this could be useful in analyzing QSAR models, where we are interested in the effect of individual descriptors on the predictive ability of the models. While there has been work on characterizing descriptor importance, all of them involve retraining the model with scrambled or randomized descriptors.

The core of Adler et al is their statement that

the information content of a feature can be estimated by trying to predict it from the remaining features.

Fundamentally, what they appear to be quantifying is the extent of multivariate correlations between subsets of features. They propose a method to “obscure the influence of a feature on an outcome” and using this, measure the difference in model prediction accuracy between the test set using the obscured variable and the original (i.e., unobscured) test set. Doing this for each feature in the dataset lets them rank the features. A key step of the process is to obscure individual features, which they term ε-obscurity. The paper presents the algorithms and also links to an implementation.

The authors test their approach on several datasets, including a QSAR-type dataset from the Dark Reactions Project. It would be interesting to compare this method, on other QSAR datasets, with simpler methods such as descriptor scrambling or resampling (from the same distribution as the descriptor) since these methods could be easily adapted to the black box assumption used by the authors.

Furthermore, given that their motivation appears to be driven by capturing multivariate correlation, one could take a feature \(X_i\) and regress all the other features \(X_j\ (j \neq i)\) on it. Repeating this for all \(X_i\) would then allow us to rank the features in terms of the RMSE of the individual regressions. Features with low RMSE would represent those that are succesfully estimated from the remaining features. This would test for (possibly non-linear) correlations within the dataset itself (which is conceptually similar to previous work from these authors) but not say anything about the model itself having learnt any such correlations. (Obviously, this works for numerical features only – but that is usually the case for QSAR models).

Finally, a question that seemed to be unanswered in the paper was, what does one do when one identifies a feature that is important (or, that can be predicted from the other features)? In the context of algorithmic fairness, such a feature could lead to discriminatory outcomes (e.g., zipcode as a proxy for race). What does one do in such a case?

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