Jason Yosinski sits in a small glass box at Uber's San Francisco, California, headquarters, pondering the mind of an artificial intelligence (AI). An Uber research scientist, Yosinski is performing a kind of brain surgery on the AI running on his laptop. Like many of the AIs that will soon be powering so much of modern life, including self-driving Uber cars, Yosinski's program is a deep neural network, with an architecture loosely inspired by the brain. And like the brain, the program is hard to understand from the outside: It's a black box.
This particular AI has been trained, using a vast sum of labeled images, to recognize objects as random as zebras, fire trucks, and seat belts. Could it recognize Yosinski and the reporter hovering in front of the webcam? Yosinski zooms in on one of the AI's individual computational nodes—the neurons, so to speak—to see what is prompting its response. Two ghostly white ovals pop up and float on the screen. This neuron, it seems, has learned to detect the outlines of faces. "This responds to your face and my face," he says. "It responds to different size faces, different color faces."
No one trained this network to identify faces. Humans weren't labeled in its training images. Yet learn faces it did, perhaps as a way to recognize the things that tend to accompany them, such as ties and cowboy hats. The network is too complex for humans to comprehend its exact decisions. Yosinski's probe had illuminated one small part of it, but overall, it remained opaque. "We build amazing models," he says. "But we don't quite understand them. And every year, this gap is going to get a bit larger."
Each month, it seems, deep neural networks, or deep learning, as the field is also called, spread to another scientific discipline. They can predict the best way to synthesize organic molecules. They can detect genes related to autism risk. They are even changing how science itself is conducted. The AIs often succeed in what they do. But they have left scientists, whose very enterprise is founded on explanation, with a nagging question: Why, model, why?
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