skip to main content

Title: Carefully Choose the Baseline: Lessons Learned from Applying XAI Attribution Methods for Regression Tasks in Geoscience

Methods of explainable artificial intelligence (XAI) are used in geoscientific applications to gain insights into the decision-making strategy of neural networks (NNs), highlighting which features in the input contribute the most to a NN prediction. Here, we discuss our “lesson learned” that the task of attributing a prediction to the input does not have a single solution. Instead, the attribution results depend greatly on the considered baseline that the XAI method utilizes—a fact that has been overlooked in the geoscientific literature. The baseline is a reference point to which the prediction is compared so that the prediction can be understood. This baseline can be chosen by the user or is set by construction in the method’s algorithm—often without the user being aware of that choice. We highlight that different baselines can lead to different insights for different science questions and, thus, should be chosen accordingly. To illustrate the impact of the baseline, we use a large ensemble of historical and future climate simulations forced with the shared socioeconomic pathway 3-7.0 (SSP3-7.0) scenario and train a fully connected NN to predict the ensemble- and global-mean temperature (i.e., the forced global warming signal) given an annual temperature map from an individual more » ensemble member. We then use various XAI methods and different baselines to attribute the network predictions to the input. We show that attributions differ substantially when considering different baselines, because they correspond to answering different science questions. We conclude by discussing important implications and considerations about the use of baselines in XAI research.

Significance Statement

In recent years, methods of explainable artificial intelligence (XAI) have found great application in geoscientific applications, because they can be used to attribute the predictions of neural networks (NNs) to the input and interpret them physically. Here, we highlight that the attributions—and the physical interpretation—depend greatly on the choice of the baseline—a fact that has been overlooked in the geoscientific literature. We illustrate this dependence for a specific climate task, in which a NN is trained to predict the ensemble- and global-mean temperature (i.e., the forced global warming signal) given an annual temperature map from an individual ensemble member. We show that attributions differ substantially when considering different baselines, because they correspond to answering different science questions.

« less
 ;  ;  
Award ID(s):
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Artificial Intelligence for the Earth Systems
American Meteorological Society
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) have recently attracted great attention in geoscience due to their ability to capture non-linear system behavior and extract predictive spatiotemporal patterns. Given their black-box nature however, and the importance of prediction explainability, methods of explainable artificial intelligence (XAI) are gaining popularity as a means to explain the CNN decision-making strategy. Here, we establish an intercomparison of some of the most popular XAI methods and investigate their fidelity in explaining CNN decisions for geoscientific applications. Our goal is to raise awareness of the theoretical limitations of these methods and gain insight into the relative strengths and weaknesses to help guide best practices. The considered XAI methods are first applied to an idealized attribution benchmark, where the ground truth of explanation of the network is known a priori , to help objectively assess their performance. Secondly, we apply XAI to a climate-related prediction setting, namely to explain a CNN that is trained to predict the number of atmospheric rivers in daily snapshots of climate simulations. Our results highlight several important issues of XAI methods (e.g., gradient shattering, inability to distinguish the sign of attribution, ignorance to zero input) that have previously been overlooked in our field and,more »if not considered cautiously, may lead to a distorted picture of the CNN decision-making strategy. We envision that our analysis will motivate further investigation into XAI fidelity and will help towards a cautious implementation of XAI in geoscience, which can lead to further exploitation of CNNs and deep learning for prediction problems.« less
  2. Abstract Background

    Unlike linear models which are traditionally used to study all-cause mortality, complex machine learning models can capture non-linear interrelations and provide opportunities to identify unexplored risk factors. Explainable artificial intelligence can improve prediction accuracy over linear models and reveal great insights into outcomes like mortality. This paper comprehensively analyzes all-cause mortality by explaining complex machine learning models.


    We propose the IMPACT framework that uses XAI technique to explain a state-of-the-art tree ensemble mortality prediction model. We apply IMPACT to understand all-cause mortality for 1-, 3-, 5-, and 10-year follow-up times within the NHANES dataset, which contains 47,261 samples and 151 features.


    We show that IMPACT models achieve higher accuracy than linear models and neural networks. Using IMPACT, we identify several overlooked risk factors and interaction effects. Furthermore, we identify relationships between laboratory features and mortality that may suggest adjusting established reference intervals. Finally, we develop highly accurate, efficient and interpretable mortality risk scores that can be used by medical professionals and individuals without medical expertise. We ensure generalizability by performing temporal validation of the mortality risk scores and external validation of important findings with the UK Biobank dataset.


    IMPACT’s unique strength is the explainable prediction, which provides insights intomore »the complex, non-linear relationships between mortality and features, while maintaining high accuracy. Our explainable risk scores could help individuals improve self-awareness of their health status and help clinicians identify patients with high risk. IMPACT takes a consequential step towards bringing contemporary developments in XAI to epidemiology.

    « less
  3. Pham, Tien ; Solomon, Latasha ; Hohil, Myron E. (Ed.)
    Explainable Artificial Intelligence (XAI) is the capability of explaining the reasoning behind the choices made by the machine learning (ML) algorithm which can help understand and maintain the transparency of the decision-making capability of the ML algorithm. Humans make thousands of decisions every day in their lives. Every decision an individual makes, they can explain the reasons behind why they made the choices that they made. Nonetheless, it is not the same in the case of ML and AI systems. Furthermore, XAI was not wideley researched until suddenly the topic was brought forward and has been one of the most relevant topics in AI for trustworthy and transparent outcomes. XAI tries to provide maximum transparency to a ML algorithm by answering questions about how models effectively came up with the output. ML models with XAI will have the ability to explain the rationale behind the results, understand the weaknesses and strengths the learning models, and be able to see how the models will behave in the future. In this paper, we investigate XAI for algorithmic trustworthiness and transparency. We evaluate XAI using some example use cases and by using SHAP (SHapley Additive exPlanations) library and visualizing the effect of featuresmore »individually and cumulatively in the prediction process.« less
  4. Abstract Despite the increasingly successful application of neural networks to many problems in the geosciences, their complex and nonlinear structure makes the interpretation of their predictions difficult, which limits model trust and does not allow scientists to gain physical insights about the problem at hand. Many different methods have been introduced in the emerging field of eXplainable Artificial Intelligence (XAI), which aims at attributing the network’s prediction to specific features in the input domain. XAI methods are usually assessed by using benchmark datasets (such as MNIST or ImageNet for image classification). However, an objective, theoretically derived ground truth for the attribution is lacking for most of these datasets, making the assessment of XAI in many cases subjective. Also, benchmark datasets specifically designed for problems in geosciences are rare. Here, we provide a framework, based on the use of additively separable functions, to generate attribution benchmark datasets for regression problems for which the ground truth of the attribution is known a priori. We generate a large benchmark dataset and train a fully connected network to learn the underlying function that was used for simulation. We then compare estimated heatmaps from different XAI methods to the ground truth in order to identifymore »examples where specific XAI methods perform well or poorly. We believe that attribution benchmarks as the ones introduced herein are of great importance for further application of neural networks in the geosciences, and for more objective assessment and accurate implementation of XAI methods, which will increase model trust and assist in discovering new science.« less
  5. Abstract

    In the last decade, much work in atmospheric science has focused on spatial verification (SV) methods for gridded prediction, which overcome serious disadvantages of pixelwise verification. However, neural networks (NN) in atmospheric science are almost always trained to optimize pixelwise loss functions, even when ultimately assessed with SV methods. This establishes a disconnect between model verification during versus after training. To address this issue, we develop spatially enhanced loss functions (SELF) and demonstrate their use for a real-world problem: predicting the occurrence of thunderstorms (henceforth, “convection”) with NNs. In each SELF we use either a neighborhood filter, which highlights convection at scales larger than a threshold, or a spectral filter (employing Fourier or wavelet decomposition), which is more flexible and highlights convection at scales between two thresholds. We use these filters to spatially enhance common verification scores, such as the Brier score. We train each NN with a different SELF and compare their performance at many scales of convection, from discrete storm cells to tropical cyclones. Among our many findings are that (i) for a low or high risk threshold, the ideal SELF focuses on small or large scales, respectively; (ii) models trained with a pixelwise loss function performmore »surprisingly well; and (iii) nevertheless, models trained with a spectral filter produce much better-calibrated probabilities than a pixelwise model. We provide a general guide to using SELFs, including technical challenges and the final Python code, as well as demonstrating their use for the convection problem. To our knowledge this is the most in-depth guide to SELFs in the geosciences.

    Significance Statement

    Gridded predictions, in which a quantity is predicted at every pixel in space, should be verified with spatially aware methods rather than pixel by pixel. Neural networks (NN), which are often used for gridded prediction, are trained to minimize an error value called the loss function. NN loss functions in atmospheric science are almost always pixelwise, which causes the predictions to miss rare events and contain unrealistic spatial patterns. We use spatial filters to enhance NN loss functions, and we test our novel spatially enhanced loss functions (SELF) on thunderstorm prediction. We find that different SELFs work better for different scales (i.e., different-sized thunderstorm complexes) and that spectral filters, one of the two filter types, produce unexpectedly well calibrated thunderstorm probabilities.

    « less