Counterfactual explanations (CEs) are a powerful means for understanding how decisions made by algorithms can be changed. Researchers have proposed a number of desiderata that CEs should meet to be practically useful, such as requiring minimal effort to enact, or complying with causal models. In this paper, we consider the interplay between the desiderata of robustness (i.e., that enacting CEs remains feasible and cost-effective even if adverse events take place) and sparsity (i.e., that CEs require only a subset of the features to be changed). In particular, we study the effect of addressing robustness separately for the features that are recommended to be changed and those that are not. We provide definitions of robustness for sparse CEs that are workable in that they can be incorporated as penalty terms in the loss functions that are used for discovering CEs. To carry out our experiments, we create and release code where five data sets (commonly used in the field of fair and explainable machine learning) have been enriched with feature-specific annotations that can be used to sample meaningful perturbations. Our experiments show that CEs are often not robust and, if adverse perturbations take place (even if not worst-case), the intervention they prescribe may require a much larger cost than anticipated, or even become impossible. However, accounting for robustness in the search process, which can be done rather easily, allows discovering robust CEs systematically. Robust CEs make additional intervention to contrast perturbations much less costly than non-robust CEs. We also find that robustness is easier to achieve for the features to change, posing an important point of consideration for the choice of what counterfactual explanation is best for the user. Our code is available at:

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Virgolin, M, & Fracaros, S. (2023). On the robustness of sparse counterfactual explanations to adverse perturbations. Artificial Intelligence, 316, 103840.1–103840.30. doi:10.1016/j.artint.2022.103840