Algorithms are Black Boxes, That is Why We Need Explainable AI

Dr Mark van Rijmenam, CSP
6 min readSep 4, 2019
Algorithms are Black Boxes, That is Why We Need Explainable AI
Image credit: Customdesigner/Shutterstock

Artificial Intelligence offers a lot of advantages for organisations by creating better and more efficient organisations, improving customer services with conversational AI and reducing a wide variety of risks in different industries. Although we are only at the beginning of the AI revolution that is upon us, we can already see that artificial intelligence will have a profound effect on our lives. As a result, AI governance and Explainable AI are becoming increasingly important, if we want to reap the benefits of artificial intelligence.

First of all, it is important to distinguish the difference between algorithms and AI. Algorithms are a set of (complex) instructions or rules that a computer needs to follow when solving a certain problem. Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, is a collection of algorithms working together to enable machines to replicate human behaviour. Algorithms form the basis of AI and, hence, we need to have a clear understanding of the underlying algorithms, for which we require the right governance mechanisms.

Data governance and ethics have always been important and a few years ago, I developed ethical guidelines for organisations to follow, if they want to get started with big data. Such ethical guidelines are becoming more important. Especially since algorithms are often biased and taking over more and more decisions. Automated decision-making is great until it has a negative outcome for your business or customers and you cannot change that decision or, at least, understand the rationale behind that decision.

Therefore, it is important to understand algorithms and know that they have two major flaws:

  1. Algorithms are extremely literal; they pursue their (ultimate) goal literally and do exactly what is told while ignoring any other, important, consideration;
  2. Algorithms are black boxes; whatever happens inside an algorithm is only known to the organisation that uses it, and quite often not even.

Algorithms are very Literal

An algorithm only understands what has been explicitly told to it. Algorithms are not yet, and perhaps never will be, smart enough to know what it does not know. AI does not know what it does not know…

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Dr Mark van Rijmenam, CSP

Innovation Keynote Speaker (CSP) & Strategic Futurist for Fortune 500 | Talk to my Digital Twin via text, audio or video in 28 languages!