We study how well machine learning models trained on causal features generalize across domains. We consider 16 prediction tasks on tabular datasets covering applications in health, employment, education, social benefits, and politics. Each dataset comes with multiple domains, allowing us to test how well a model trained in one domain performs in another. For each prediction task, we select features that have a causal influence on the target of prediction. Our goal is to test the hypothesis that models trained on causal features generalize better across domains. Without exception, we find that predictors using all available features, regardless of causality, have better in-domain and out-of-domain accuracy than predictors using causal features. Moreover, even the absolute drop in accuracy from one domain to the other is no better for causal predictors than for models that use all features. If the goal is to generalize to new domains, practitioners might as well train the best possible model on all available features.
We study how to best spend a budget of noisy labels to compare the accuracy of two binary classifiers. It's common practice to collect and aggregate multiple noisy labels for a given data point into a less noisy label via a majority vote. We prove a theorem that runs counter to conventional wisdom. If the goal is to identify the better of two classifiers, we show it's best to spend the budget on collecting a single label for more samples. Our result follows from a non-trivial application of Cram\'er's theorem, a staple in the theory of large deviations. We discuss the implications of our work for the design of machine learning benchmarks, where they overturn some time-honored recommendations. In addition, our results provide sample size bounds superior to what follows from Hoeffding's bound.
Predictions in the social world generally influence the target of prediction, a phenomenon known as performativity. Self-fulfilling and self-negating predictions are examples of performativity. Of fundamental importance to economics, finance, and the social sciences, the notion has been absent from the development of machine learning. In machine learning applications, performativity often surfaces as distribution shift. A predictive model deployed on a digital platform, for example, influences consumption and thereby changes the data-generating distribution. We survey the recently founded area of performative prediction that provides a definition and conceptual framework to study performativity in machine learning. A consequence of performative prediction is a natural equilibrium notion that gives rise to new optimization challenges. Another consequence is a distinction between learning and steering, two mechanisms at play in performative prediction. The notion of steering is in turn intimately related to questions of power in digital markets. We review the notion of performative power that gives an answer to the question how much a platform can steer participants through its predictions. We end on a discussion of future directions, such as the role that performativity plays in contesting algorithmic systems.
ImageNet was famously created from Flickr image search results. What if we recreated ImageNet instead by searching the massive LAION dataset based on image captions alone? In this work, we carry out this counterfactual investigation. We find that the resulting ImageNet recreation, which we call LAIONet, looks distinctly unlike the original. Specifically, the intra-class similarity of images in the original ImageNet is dramatically higher than it is for LAIONet. Consequently, models trained on ImageNet perform significantly worse on LAIONet. We propose a rigorous explanation for the discrepancy in terms of a subtle, yet important, difference in two plausible causal data-generating processes for the respective datasets, that we support with systematic experimentation. In a nutshell, searching based on an image caption alone creates an information bottleneck that mitigates the selection bias otherwise present in image-based filtering. Our explanation formalizes a long-held intuition in the community that ImageNet images are stereotypical, unnatural, and overly simple representations of the class category. At the same time, it provides a simple and actionable takeaway for future dataset creation efforts.
Seven years ago, researchers proposed a postprocessing method to equalize the error rates of a model across different demographic groups. The work launched hundreds of papers purporting to improve over the postprocessing baseline. We empirically evaluate these claims through thousands of model evaluations on several tabular datasets. We find that the fairness-accuracy Pareto frontier achieved by postprocessing contains all other methods we were feasibly able to evaluate. In doing so, we address two common methodological errors that have confounded previous observations. One relates to the comparison of methods with different unconstrained base models. The other concerns methods achieving different levels of constraint relaxation. At the heart of our study is a simple idea we call unprocessing that roughly corresponds to the inverse of postprocessing. Unprocessing allows for a direct comparison of methods using different underlying models and levels of relaxation. Interpreting our findings, we recall a widely overlooked theoretical argument, present seven years ago, that accurately predicted what we observe.
As large language models increase in capability, researchers have started to conduct surveys of all kinds on these models with varying scientific motivations. In this work, we examine what we can learn from a model's survey responses on the basis of the well-established American Community Survey (ACS) by the U.S. Census Bureau. Evaluating more than a dozen different models, varying in size from a few hundred million to ten billion parameters, hundreds of thousands of times each on questions from the ACS, we systematically establish two dominant patterns. First, smaller models have a significant position and labeling bias, for example, towards survey responses labeled with the letter "A". This A-bias diminishes, albeit slowly, as model size increases. Second, when adjusting for this labeling bias through randomized answer ordering, models still do not trend toward US population statistics or those of any cognizable population. Rather, models across the board trend toward uniformly random aggregate statistics over survey responses. This pattern is robust to various different ways of prompting the model, including what is the de-facto standard. Our findings demonstrate that aggregate statistics of a language model's survey responses lack the signals found in human populations. This absence of statistical signal cautions about the use of survey responses from large language models at present time.
Many recent efforts aim to augment language models with relevant information retrieved from a database at test time. We avoid the need for prompt engineering by directly fine-tuning the model on data retrieved at test time using its standard training setup. For this purpose, we build a large-scale distributed nearest neighbor index based on text embeddings of the Pile dataset. Given a query to a language model, our system retrieves the neighbors of the query and fine-tunes the model on the text data corresponding to those neighbors. Surprisingly, retrieving and training on as few as 20 neighbors, each for only one gradient iteration, drastically improves performance across more than twenty language modeling tasks in the Pile benchmark. For example, test-time training significantly narrows the performance gap between a small GPT2 model and a GPTNeo model, more than ten times larger, that was specifically trained to convergence on the Pile. Sufficient index quality and size, however, are important. Our work establishes a valuable first baseline for implementing test-time training in the context of large language models, opening the door to numerous promising research avenues.
Early warning systems (EWS) are prediction algorithms that have recently taken a central role in efforts to improve graduation rates in public schools across the US. These systems assist in targeting interventions at individual students by predicting which students are at risk of dropping out. Despite significant investments and adoption, there remain significant gaps in our understanding of the efficacy of EWS. In this work, we draw on nearly a decade's worth of data from a system used throughout Wisconsin to provide the first large-scale evaluation of the long-term impact of EWS on graduation outcomes. We present evidence that risk assessments made by the prediction system are highly accurate, including for students from marginalized backgrounds. Despite the system's accuracy and widespread use, we find no evidence that it has led to improved graduation rates. We surface a robust statistical pattern that can explain why these seemingly contradictory insights hold. Namely, environmental features, measured at the level of schools, contain significant signal about dropout risk. Within each school, however, academic outcomes are essentially independent of individual student performance. This empirical observation indicates that assigning all students within the same school the same probability of graduation is a nearly optimal prediction. Our work provides an empirical backbone for the robust, qualitative understanding among education researchers and policy-makers that dropout is structurally determined. The primary barrier to improving outcomes lies not in identifying students at risk of dropping out within specific schools, but rather in overcoming structural differences across different school districts. Our findings indicate that we should carefully evaluate the decision to fund early warning systems without also devoting resources to interventions tackling structural barriers.
Regulators and academics are increasingly interested in the causal effect that algorithmic actions of a digital platform have on consumption. We introduce a general causal inference problem we call the steerability of consumption that abstracts many settings of interest. Focusing on observational designs and exploiting the structure of the problem, we exhibit a set of assumptions for causal identifiability that significantly weaken the often unrealistic overlap assumptions of standard designs. The key novelty of our approach is to explicitly model the dynamics of consumption over time, viewing the platform as a controller acting on a dynamical system. From this dynamical systems perspective, we are able to show that exogenous variation in consumption and appropriately responsive algorithmic control actions are sufficient for identifying steerability of consumption. Our results illustrate the fruitful interplay of control theory and causal inference, which we illustrate with examples from econometrics, macroeconomics, and machine learning.