Marketing AI: Interpretability and Explainability

One of the most important core concepts in understanding marketing AI is the difference between interpretability and explainability. When we want to understand how a piece of software arrived at the outcome, we’ll choose between these two methods.

Why Does This Matter?

These two concepts are vital to our ability to audit AI and prove that our models are working as intended. As AI becomes more frequently used, we’ll run into more situations where we need to explain what the machine did.

For example, suppose someone files a lawsuit against our company alleging that our AI-driven marketing practices are discriminatory, such as redlining. This is a clear case where we need to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that our AI model did not discriminate and is not biased.

In another example, maybe we deploy an AI-based marketing solution and promise our CMO or our Board of Directors that it will improve marketing performance by 15%. When we deploy it, it does exactly the opposite, and now we have to explain why.

In both situations, we fundamentally have to answer the question: what happened?


Before we go further, let’s define these two terms.

Interpretability is the decompilation of the model into its source code. We look at the raw source code used to create the model to understand the decisions made along the way.

Explainability is the post-hoc explanation of what the model did, of what outcome we got and whether that outcome is the intended one or not.

To put these in layman’s terms, explainability is like taste testing a cake. We taste it and can explain based on the taste what went into the cake. This is a very fast, easy way of testing, but can go wrong. Suppose we can’t tell, in a taste testing, the difference between almond extract and cherry extract? We might get the specifics wrong – and in some cases, that’s not good enough. Explainability in AI is like that – we explain the results, but may not know what happened to generate those results.

Interpretability is like inspecting the baker’s recipe for the cake. We look at the list of ingredients and the steps taken to bake the cake, and we verify that the recipe makes sense and the ingredients were good. This is a much more rigorous way of validating our results, but it’s the most complete – and if we’re in a high-stakes situation where we need to remove all doubt, this is the approach we take. Interpretability in AI is like that – we step through the code itself that makes the model, as well as the model itself, and we explain in detail, at every turn, what happened.

That begs the question, why wouldn’t we use interpretability all the time? For more complex systems like neural networks, interpretability is a massive, expensive undertaking. It slows down systems like crazy, and in the most complex models, we might never fully unravel all the details. Interpretability also reveals the secret sauce, to the extent there is any, in the process – and just as a master chef might not want their secret ingredients to be made public, many AI software manufacturers feel the same.

When you hear tech companies talking about ethical AI, very often they take the explainability route because it’s far less costly and operationally difficult, as well as preserving secrecy. In general, companies will try to default to explainability as much as possible; that will not change until the first lawsuits in which explainability doesn’t satisfy a court’s requirement for evidence.

Interpretability is the Gold Standard

Disclosure: I am not a lawyer. Seek actual legal advice from a bar-certified lawyer.

Many of the lawsuits currently in courts or recently litigated focus on the use of data, the legality of its acquisition, and intended uses in AI. The models themselves have not been litigated yet, but that is inevitable.

As you incorporate AI in to your marketing, work with your legal team to mitigate that risk in advance:

  • Do scenario planning in which your marketing strategies and tactics are brought before a court of law for things like bias and discrimination, unlawful use of personal data, and other common scenarios.
  • Build your AI models with interpretability in mind.
  • Work with vendors that can either provide indemnity or decompiled source code models to defend yourself in a court of law.
  • Operate as though machine learning models are presumed guilty until proven innocent and proactively build in methods to demonstrate active defense against things like bias.
  • Ensure the data you’re using is not leveraging any information prohibited under the law.

Laws about AI will continue to evolve, but one thing seems clear: explainability will not be enough in the future.

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