Select Page


Robbins, S. (2019). A Misdirected Principle with a Catch: Explicability for AI. Minds and Machines.


There is widespread agreement that there should be a principle requiring that artificial intelligence (AI) be ‘explicable’. Microsoft, Google, the World Economic Forum, the draft AI ethics guidelines for the EU commission, etc. all include a principle for AI that falls under the umbrella of ‘explicability’. Roughly, the principle states that “for AI to promote and not constrain human autonomy, our ‘decision about who should decide’ must be informed by knowledge of how AI would act instead of us” (Floridi et al. in Minds Mach 28(4):689–707, 2018). There is a strong intuition that if an algorithm decides, for example, whether to give someone a loan, then that algorithm should be explicable. I argue here, however, that such a principle is misdirected. The property of requiring explicability should attach to a particular action or decision rather than the entity making that decision. It is the context and the potential harm resulting from decisions that drive the moral need for explicability—not the process by which decisions are reached. Related to this is the fact that AI is used for many low-risk purposes for which it would be unnecessary to require that it be explicable. A principle requiring explicability would prevent us from reaping the benefits of AI used in these situations. Finally, the explanations given by explicable AI are only fruitful if we already know which considerations are acceptable for the decision at hand. If we already have these considerations, then there is no need to use contemporary AI algorithms because standard automation would be available. In other words, a principle of explicability for AI makes the use of AI redundant.