On the Safety of Machine Learning: Cyber-Physical Systems, Decision Sciences, and Data Products

Kush R. Varshney, Homa Alemzadeh

Machine learning algorithms increasingly influence our decisions and interact with us in all parts of our daily lives. Therefore, just as we consider the safety of power plants, highways, and a variety of other engineered socio-technical systems, we must also take into account the safety of systems involving machine learning. Heretofore, the definition of safety has not been formalized in a machine learning context. In this paper, we do so by defining machine learning safety in terms of risk, epistemic uncertainty, and the harm incurred by unwanted outcomes. We then use this definition to examine safety in all sorts of applications in cyber-physical systems, decision sciences, and data products. We find that the foundational principle of modern statistical machine learning, empirical risk minimization, is not always a sufficient objective. Finally, we discuss how four different categories of strategies for achieving safety in engineering, including inherently safe design, safety reserves, safe fail, and procedural safeguards can be mapped to a machine learning context. We then discuss example techniques that can be adopted in each category, such as considering interpretability and causality of predictive models, objective functions beyond expected prediction accuracy, human involvement for labeling difficult or rare examples, and user experience design of software and open data.

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