Do Input Gradients Highlight Discriminative Features?

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 (NeurIPS 2021)

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Harshay Shah, Prateek Jain, Praneeth Netrapalli


Post-hoc gradient-based interpretability methods [Simonyan et al., 2013, Smilkov et al., 2017] that provide instance-specific explanations of model predictions are often based on assumption (A): magnitude of input gradients—gradients of logits with respect to input—noisily highlight discriminative task-relevant features. In this work, we test the validity of assumption (A) using a three-pronged approach:1. We develop an evaluation framework, DiffROAR, to test assumption (A) on four image classification benchmarks. Our results suggest that (i) input gradients of standard models (i.e., trained on original data) may grossly violate (A), whereas (ii) input gradients of adversarially robust models satisfy (A).2. We then introduce BlockMNIST, an MNIST-based semi-real dataset, that by design encodes a priori knowledge of discriminative features. Our analysis on BlockMNIST leverages this information to validate as well as characterize differences between input gradient attributions of standard and robust models.3. Finally, we theoretically prove that our empirical findings hold on a simplified version of the BlockMNIST dataset. Specifically, we prove that input gradients of standard one-hidden-layer MLPs trained on this dataset do not highlight instance-specific signal coordinates, thus grossly violating assumption (A).Our findings motivate the need to formalize and test common assumptions in interpretability in a falsifiable manner [Leavitt and Morcos, 2020]. We believe that the DiffROAR evaluation framework and BlockMNIST-based datasets can serve as sanity checks to audit instance-specific interpretability methods; code and data available at