Visualizing Complex ML Models For Improved Interpretability

AI transparency and model interpretability are critical factors for the responsible deployment and use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). As models become more complex, the ability to understand and explain their behavior becomes increasingly challenging. While Deep Neural Networks (DNNs) and other black-box models may offer remarkable predictive performance, they often do so at the cost of transparency and ease of interpretation. The result is a trade-off between accuracy and explainability, a balance that becomes particularly precarious in sectors such as healthcare, finance, and law where understanding the how and why behind a decision is crucial.

But what if you didn't have to compromise? Enter SOTAI models, a class of machine learning models that aim to make this trade-off a thing of the past. Through a unique approach that incorporates calibration analysis and shape constraints, SOTAI models offer a level of transparency, interpretability, and control that is unparalleled in the machine learning landscape. Unlike black-box models, SOTAI's calibration layers can be visualized to provide granular insights into how each feature influences the model's predictions. Shape constraints, such as monotonicity, unimodality, and trust constraints, allow users to impose real-world behavioral rules on the model, making it both interpretable and trustworthy. You can learn more about SOTAI models here.

In this post, we'll delve into the challenges of visualizing complex, black-box models like DNNs and the best interpretability techniques to approach visualizing them. We'll also discuss the inherent advantages of SOTAI models and demonstrate practical ways to visualize these models for better interpretability and decision-making.

3D visualization of what a futuristic complex machine learning model might look like.

The Need For Model Visualization

The mathematics and algorithms that power machine learning models are black boxes to stakeholders, decision-makers, and even some data scientists. This is where AI model visualization can be invaluable.

Easier to Understand for Non-Experts

Complex equations and algorithms are not everyone's cup of tea. Visualization acts as a universal language that can make the intricacies of a model accessible even to those without a background in machine learning. Whether it's a hospital administrator trying to understand a diagnostic model or a bank executive evaluating a credit risk model, visualizations can break down barriers and facilitate understanding across various domains.

Importance in Regulated Industries

In regulated sectors such as healthcare and finance, the stakes are particularly high. Wrong predictions can lead to incorrect medical treatments or unfair loan denials. Regulatory bodies often require proof that machine learning models are not just accurate but also interpretable. Model visualization serves as an invaluable tool for demonstrating compliance and gaining stakeholders' trust.

Facilitates Debugging, Model Improvement, and Explanation

Visualizing how a model makes predictions can uncover unexpected behaviors or biases, making it an essential tool for debugging. It can help identify overfitting or under-fitting, as well as provide insights into which features might be irrelevant or even misleading. By making the abstract concrete, visualizations enable data scientists to explain and fine-tune models more effectively.

Why Traditional Black-Box Models Are Hard To Visualize

One of the primary reasons black-box models like Deep Neural Networks (DNNs) and Random Forests are difficult to visualize is their inherent complexity. With multiple layers, neurons, activation functions, or trees involved, understanding what's happening inside becomes a monumental task.

Non-Linearity and High-Dimensionality

The use of non-linear activation functions in DNNs and the splitting rules in Random Forests add another layer of complexity. The models often work in high-dimensional feature spaces, making it challenging to visualize their decision boundaries.

Lack of Transparency in Decision-Making

Black-box models do not readily offer insights into their decision-making process. Unlike simpler models, where you can easily see the relationship between input features and output predictions, this information is hidden in black-box models, making it hard to interpret their predictions. There's a reason that the layers in a DNN are called "hidden layers."

Case Study: Deep Neural Nets (DNNs)

Why DNNs are Considered Black-Box Models

The primary reason DNNs are considered black-box models is the use of non-linear activation functions and multiple layers. This complexity makes it difficult to trace how any given input leads to a specific output. While the model may know the meaning of any given node in the network, this meaning is hidden from us.

Challenges in Visualizing DNNs for Interpretability

Due to their complex architecture and non-linearity, straightforward visualizations like bar charts or line plots are ineffective for DNNs. Advanced techniques like saliency maps can offer some insights but are often not sufficient for complete interpretability.

Best Practices for Visualizing DNNs

  • Activation Map: This shows the activations in various layers of the neural network, helping to identify which parts of the network are 'activated' by certain inputs.
  • Saliency + Class Activation Maps (Image): These maps highlight the regions in an input image that are most important for classification. They're especially useful in computer vision tasks.
  • Attention Mechanisms (NLP): In natural language processing (NLP), attention mechanisms can be visualized to show which parts of the text the model focuses on while making predictions.
  • Embedding Projector (NLP): This tool helps visualize high-dimensional word embeddings in a 2D or 3D space, providing insights into how the model understands language.
  • Occlusion Maps: By systematically occluding different parts of the input and observing the effect on the output, you can identify which features are most important.
  • Net2Vis: This is a tool designed for visualizing the architecture of deep neural networks, providing a more intuitive understanding of their structure.
Plots of activation maps for a three layer DNN classifier trained on the UCI Statlog Heart dataset.

Case Study: Random Forest

Why Random Forests are Considered Black-Box Models

A Random Forest model comprises multiple decision trees, each trained on a random subset of the data. The final output is usually the average or majority vote of all the individual trees. Each tree in a Random Forest has its own decision path for classification or regression. When combined, these paths form an intricate web that is hard to visualize or interpret.

Challenges in Visualizing Random Forests for Interpretability

Visualizing an individual tree in a Random Forest may be feasible, but doing so for the entire ensemble is challenging. Techniques like partial dependence plots can offer some insights, but they don't capture the full complexity of the model's decision-making process.

Best Practices for Visualizing Random Forests

  • Tree Interpreter: This tool breaks down the predictions of Random Forests to show the contribution of each feature for individual predictions.
  • Visualizing Ensemble Decision Paths: This involves creating a summary visualization of the multiple decision paths taken by the trees in the ensemble.
  • Individual Decision Trees: While visualizing all trees in a Random Forest is impractical, looking at individual trees can give some insight into the model’s decision-making process.
  • XGBoost Feature Importance: While not a pure Random Forest, XGBoost offers a feature importance plot that shows which features contribute most to the predictions.
A visualization of a single decision tree for a Random Forest classifier trained on the UCI Statlog Heart dataset.

What About Visualizing Any Black-Box Model?

  • Charting Training Results: Monitoring metrics or loss per epoch during the training phase can also offer valuable insights. By plotting these measures over time, one can understand the model's learning behavior, diagnose issues like overfitting or under-fitting, and even get a sense of how quickly the model is converging to a solution.
  • SHAP Values + Plots: SHAP (SHapley Additive exPlanations) can be used to explain the output of almost any machine learning model by providing a measure of the impact of each feature on the prediction. For more on this, see our other post about how to use the SHAP package.
  • Partial Dependence Plots: These plots show the marginal effect features have on the predicted outcome while holding all other features constant. They are useful for understanding the impact of individual features but are limited to a single or pair of features.
  • LIME (Local Interpretable Model-agnostic Explanations): LIME can be applied to any black-box classifier to explain individual predictions. It approximates the black-box model with a simpler, interpretable model around each prediction.

By understanding the challenges in visualizing traditional black-box models, we can appreciate the need for more interpretable alternatives, like SOTAI models, which we'll explore in the next section.

Additional Visualization Value When Using SOTAI Models

What are SOTAI Models?

SOTAI models are a specialized class of machine learning models that directly focus on transparency and interpretability. They are designed to make complex decision-making processes easier to understand and control. This is possible because their unique architecture incorporates calibration analysis and shape constraints.

How SOTAI Models Differ From Traditional Black-Box Models

SOTAI models offer a unique blend of transparency and performance. Unlike traditional black-box models, such as Deep Neural Networks or Random Forests, SOTAI models are built to prioritize both predictive accuracy and interpretability. Their architecture is inherently designed for transparency and constraints, allowing you to peel back the layers and understand the model's decision-making process. You can also impose constraints to control the model's behavior, making it both interpretable and trustworthy. SOTAI models are "universal approximators" just like DNNs. This means they have the theoretical capability to approximate any function, providing a robustness and flexibility that is comparable to more complex models without sacrificing transparency.

The Concept of Feature Calibration and Constraints

A standout feature of SOTAI models is the concept of feature calibrators. Every feature in the dataset first goes through a calibration layer, which can be visualized to understand how the model interprets that particular feature's influence on the prediction. This adds an extra layer of transparency that is generally not available in traditional machine learning models.

SOTAI models allow for the implementation of shape constraints like monotonicity, unimodality, and trust constraints. These constraints make the model behavior more predictable and aligned with real-world expectations. For a deeper dive into how these feature calibrators and constraints work, make sure to check out our other post on SOTAI models! Or if you're ready to jump right in - take a look at our quickstart guide.

How To Easily Visualize SOTAI Models

The visualization of SOTAI models builds on the techniques used for black-box models, adding a layer of richness and detail that is unique to their architecture. Here's how you can unlock the full potential of SOTAI model visualization:

Leveraging General Visualization Techniques

All of the visualization methods mentioned for black-box models—SHAP values, Partial Dependence Plots, LIME, etc.—can also be applied to SOTAI models. This gives you a strong foundation for understanding how the model operates.

Plotting Feature Calibrators

Feature calibrators offer a detailed view of how different values of a specific feature influence the model's predictions. These graphical representations help you understand the model's interpretation of each feature in relation to the problem you're trying to solve. For example, does the model perceive a higher income as uniformly better when predicting creditworthiness, or is there a point where additional income has diminishing returns?

Furthermore, you can set constraints on the calibrator's shape to ensure that the model behaves as expected. Take credit score as an example. For fairness, we should guarantee that increasing credit score only ever increases creditworthiness. But is this relationship linear, or does it plateau at some point? By graphing the feature calibrator for credit score, you can visualize this relationship. A flattening line would indicate that additional increases in credit score beyond a certain point have minimal impact on creditworthiness.

Case Study: Visualizing SOTAI Calibrated Models

Visualizing your model doesn't get easier than this. With SOTAI, upload your trained model to our cloud platform, and you'll gain access to interactive visualizations right from our web client. Whether you're working on a classification problem in healthcare or a regression task in finance, SOTAI's platform makes interpretability straightforward.

Once uploaded, you can perform real-time inference, allowing you to dive into individual predictions. Examine feature calibrators and SHAP plots for each example to understand how specific features influence predictions. This level of granularity is invaluable for debugging, model improvement, and for meeting regulatory compliance needs. You can also look at global SHAP charts for a top-level view of your model.

Individual example analysis showing calibration values, linear coefficients, and force chart.
Global Analysis showing feature importance and beeswarm chart.


AI model visualizations are an important but often challenging endeavor. These models, while powerful, often leave us in the dark when it comes to understanding their inner workings even with available visualization tools, making them less suitable for applications requiring transparency and explainability. But AI transparency isn't just useful. It's necessary for building trust in any decision-making process powered by machine learning.

SOTAI models offer a compelling alternative, bridging the gap between performance and interpretability. Built with transparency and control in mind, SOTAI models allow for granular insights into how each feature contributes to a prediction. The platform's unique visualization capabilities, including feature calibrators and SHAP plots, make it easier than ever to understand and explain your model's behavior. Whether you're a seasoned data scientist or new to the field, SOTAI's approach to calibrated modeling offers a robust yet interpretable solution for your machine learning needs.

We encourage you to explore the advantages of SOTAI models for yourself. With tools designed to make AI more transparent and accountable, SOTAI is not just a step toward more interpretable AI—it's a leap. So why settle for a black box when you can have clarity and performance? Check out our Quickstart guide to begin your journey toward more transparent, understandable, and responsible AI.

Additional Resources

Recommended Reading

"Interpretable Machine Learning" by Christoph Molnar is an excellent book that covers the fundamentals of machine learning interpretability. We highly recommend you check it out!

SOTAI Documentation and Tutorials

  • Say Hello to SOTAI: An introductory guide that provides an overview of SOTAI and its unique approach to model interpretability and visualization.
  • What Is Calibrated Modeling?: Delve into the core concept of calibrated modeling, which is the backbone of SOTAI's approach to machine learning.
  • SOTAI Quickstart Guide: A step-by-step guide to get you up and running with SOTAI's platform and models.
  • SOTAI Pipelines: Learn how to integrate SOTAI into your data science workflow, from data preparation to model training and visualization.
  • SOTAI SHAPshot: Learn how to easily manage, view, explain, and share your SHAP package results for any ML model.