Underspecification Presents Challenges for Credibility in Modern Machine Learning

Alexander Nicholas D'Amour
Dan Moldovan
Babak Alipanahi
Alex Beutel
Christina Chen
Jon Deaton
Jacob Eisenstein
Shaobo Hou
Ghassen Jerfel
Yian Ma
Akinori Mitani
Andrea Montanari
Christopher Nielsen
Thomas Osborne
Rajiv Raman
Kim Ramasamy
Rory Abbott Sayres
Martin Gamunu Seneviratne
Shannon Sequeira
Harini Suresh
Victor Veitch
Journal of Machine Learning Research(2020)


ML models often exhibit unexpectedly poor behavior when they are deployed in real-world domains. We identify underspecification as a key reason for these failures. An ML pipeline is underspecified when it can return many predictors with equivalently strong held-out performance in the training domain. Underspecification is common in modern ML pipelines, such as those based on deep learning. Predictors returned by underspecified pipelines are often treated as equivalent based on their training domain performance, but we show here that such predictors can behave very differently in deployment domains. This ambiguity can lead to instability and poor model behavior in practice, and is a distinct failure mode from previously identified issues arising from structural mismatch between training and deployment domains. We show that this problem appears in a wide variety of practical ML pipelines, using examples from computer vision, medical imaging, natural language processing, clinical risk prediction based on electronic health records, and medical genomics. Our results show the need to explicitly account for underspecification in modeling pipelines that are intended for real-world deployment in any domain.