Machine learning systems are more complex than software systems. Auditing a machine learning system requires a significant shift in thinking. While software engineering principles have predominantly matured, the rapid evolution of machine learning means that machine learning systems can look very different from one company to the next. Earlier systems may be missing some of the more recent but essential developments in machine learning, such as model monitoring, continual training and responsible AI. A Machine Learning system that is deployed and put in production, needs to be reliable, scalable, maintainable and adaptable1.

Why Do An AI Audit?

Audits are independent examinations used to satisfy regulatory requirements. Beyond that, an audit can have other uses too. For example, audits can be used to identify and mitigate risks either internally within the company or externally by an acquirer performing due diligence on a target. Another overlooked benefit of an audit is to propagate industry-accepted best practices.

Machine Learning System Risks

A machine learning system carries its own specific set of risks in addition to all the risks of a software system. Common software audit frameworks, such as COBIT 2019 (a general framework for IT management and governance) and ISO 27001 (a framework emphasising information security), are insufficient.

In typical software systems, code is separate from data. This means that, regardless of input data, the software system itself doesn’t change. Machine Learning systems, however, are a function of code and data and the parameters used to combine them. Changing any of these will result in different model weights and, consequently, a different model. It is impossible to decouple them. For that reason, risk mitigating techniques easily implementable in software systems become vastly more complicated in machine learning systems.

Take version control, for example. In a software system, only source code and package dependencies have to be placed under version control. In Machine Learning systems, each component needs to be placed under version control systems that are often separate. Source code will use Git; data will use DVC; experiment parameters and trained models will use Weights & Biases.

Stale Data Produces Stale Models

Data, being an integral part of the trained model, also comes with unique challenges. While issues surrounding data quality (such as availability, completeness, consistency, and correctness) are a concern of any software system, low-quality data only affects the immediate output of such a system. In a Machine Learning system, however, bad or untimely data can poison all future outputs of the system.

Bad data often means data that is corrupt or missing. In Machine Learning systems, however, even input data that is different from the data used to train the model is considered bad. This problem is called data drift, which can be divided further into feature drift and label drift. Model monitoring is an essential part of the deployment process required to combat data drifts.

The timeliness dependency means that even good data is rendered useless after some time. This expiry date on the data (and, by extension, the model trained on that data) means that system needs continual retraining on fresh data.

Machine Learning Industry Best Practices

There are several ways to disseminate best practices in the software industry. Industry experts can move around companies taking best practices with them, FAANG companies can spread them through engineering blog posts and tech talks, or they can be gleaned from reading open source and vendor documentation. Performing an AI Audit can be an excellent alternative to these. Spreading best practices is particularly important in Machine Learning because only recently have best practices become codified and consolidated.

Here are a few examples of more recent best practices:

  • Model monitoring and continual learning

  • Generating fair, compact, robust and explainable models

  • Testing models in a robust and reproducible manner, instead of only relying on the loss function

  • Tracking data lineage

  • Using the same data pipeline for train/test and batch/streaming data

Neural Swarm AI Audit Framework

Neural Swarm has created a new audit framework for AI Systems (see Table 1). It is intended to supplement the controls and processes in a software audit.

Objective Category Controls
System Feasibility Value 3
System Requirements Value 7
Data Collection Data 7
Data Preparation Data 5
Data Splitting Data 3
Data Preprocessing Data 6
Data Pipeline Testing Data 2
Model Development Model 3
Model Training Model 4
Model Evaluation Model 5
Model Testing Model 5
Operations Deployment 6
Monitoring and Continual Learning Deployment 6
Model Fairness Responsible AI 2
Model Explainability Responsible AI 4
Model Compactness Responsible AI 1
Model Robustness Responsible AI 1
Source Code Software Engineering 6
Documentation Software Engineering 2
Version Control Software Engineering 5
Testing Software Engineering 2
Table 1: Neural Swarm AI Audit Framework

The Neural Swarm Audit Framework consists of 87 controls spanning six categories and 21 groups. The six categories comprise of four phases from the Neural Swarm project workflow (Data, Value, Model and Deployment) as well as two supplementary categories (Responsible AI and Software Engineering).

Here is a brief description of the six categories:

  • Value: Determine that AI adds business value and that the AI system is feasible with clear requirements.

  • Data: Ensure that data is suitably collected and that the data pipeline is created and tested correctly.

  • Model: Check that suitable features and models are used, that training is optimised and that the model is correctly evaluated and tested.

  • Deployment: Enforce MLOps best practices, including model monitoring and continual training.

  • Responsible AI: Verify that the model is fair, explainable, compact and robust.

  • Software Engineering: Certify that the system follows software engineering best practices around source code, documentation, version control and testing.

What Does An AI Audit Look Like?

Auditors look for conformity by collecting evidence. In a Machine Learning audit, the evidence comes primarily from reading documentation such as design documents and interviewing key stakeholders. In some cases, auditors can review source code and run certain tests to evaluate model fairness and robustness.

Different stakeholders are interviewed for the six categories:

  • Value: Interview with the Machine Learning Product Manager to discuss developing the product roadmap, and mapping user needs to product features.

  • Data: Interview with the Data Engineer to discuss building data pipelines for data collection and transformation.

  • Model: Interview with the Machine Learning Engineer to discuss designing, building and tuning the models.

  • Deployment: Interview with the MLOps Engineer to discuss deploying the system and monitoring concept and data drifts.

  • Responsible AI: Interview with the Machine Learning Product Manager to discuss how the model addresses Responsible AI concepts.

  • Software Engineering: Interview with the MLOps Engineer to discuss software engineering best practices around source code, documentation, version control and testing.

The audit result is usually written up in a 15–20 page report. The majority of the report is the Recommendations section. For each group with minor or major non-conformities, a series of recommendations will be made along with a description of the controls and observations. Depending on the complexity and number of models, the whole process can take around two weeks.

  1. Huyen, C. (2022). Lecture 1: Understanding ML Production [Presentation slides]. Unpublished manuscript, CS329S: Machine Learning Systems Design, Stanford University. 

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