As a premiere application of computing and artificial intelligence, the topic of expert systems has many points of contact with general systems theory, operations research, business process reengineering and various topics in applied mathematics and management science.
Two illustrations of actual expert systems can give an idea of how they work. In one real world case at a chemical refinery a senior employee was about to retire and the company was concerned that the loss of his expertise in managing a fractionating tower would severely impact operations of the plant. A knowledge engineer was assigned to produce an expert system reproducing his expertise saving the company the loss of the valued knowledge asset. Similarly a system called Mycin was developed from the expertise of best diagnosticians of bacterial infections whose performance was found to be as good or better than the average clinician. An early commercial success and illustration of another typical application (a task generally considered overly complex for a human) was an expert system fielded by DEC in the 1980s to quality check the configurations of their computers prior to delivery. The eighties were the time of greatest popularity of expert systems and interest lagged after the onset of the AI Winter.
The most common form of expert system is a computer program, with a set of rules, that analyzes information (usually supplied by the user of the system) about a specific class of problems, and recommends one or more courses of user action. The expert system may also provide mathematical analysis of the problem(s). The expert system utilizes what appears to be reasoning capabilities to reach conclusions.
A related term is wizard. A wizard is an interactive computer program that helps a user solve a problem. Originally the term wizard was used for programs that construct a database search query based on criteria supplied by the user. However, some rule-based expert systems are also called wizards. Other "Wizards" are a sequence of online forms that guide users through a series of choices, such as the ones which manage the installation of new software on computers, and these are not expert systems.
Forward chaining starts with the data available and uses the inference rules to conclude more data until a desired goal is reached. An inference engine using forward chaining searches the inference rules until it finds one in which the if-clause is known to be true. It then concludes the then-clause and adds this information to its data. It would continue to do this until a goal is reached. Because the data available determines which inference rules are used, this method is also called data driven.
Backward chaining starts with a list of goals and works backwards to see if there is data which will allow it to conclude any of these goals. An inference engine using backward chaining would search the inference rules until it finds one which has a then-clause that matches a desired goal. If the if-clause of that inference rule is not known to be true, then it is added to the list of goals. For example, suppose a rulebase contains two rules:
Suppose a goal is to conclude that Fritz hops.The rulebase would be searched and rule (2) would be selected because its conclusion (the then clause) matches the goal. It is not known that Fritz is a frog, so this "if" statement is added to the goal list. The rulebase is again searched and this time rule (1) is selected because its then clause matches the new goal just added to the list. This time, the if-clause (Fritz is green) is known to be true and the goal that Fritz hops is concluded. Because the list of goals determines which rules are selected and used, this method is called goal driven.
There are various expert systems in which a rulebase and an inference engine cooperate to simulate the reasoning process that a human expert pursues in analyzing a problem and arriving at a conclusion. In these systems, in order to simulate the human reasoning process, a vast amount of knowledge needed to be stored in the knowledge base. Generally, the knowledge base of such an expert system consisted of a relatively large number of "if then" type of statements that were interrelated in a manner that, in theory at least, resembled the sequence of mental steps that were involved in the human reasoning process.
Because of the need for large storage capacities and related programs to store the rulebase, most expert systems have, in the past, been run only on large information handling systems. Recently, the storage capacity of personal computers has increased to a point where it is becoming possible to consider running some types of simple expert systems on personal computers.
In some applications of expert systems, the nature of the application and the amount of stored information necessary to simulate the human reasoning process for that application is just too vast to store in the active memory of a computer. In other applications of expert systems, the nature of the application is such that not all of the information is always needed in the reasoning process. An example of this latter type application would be the use of an expert system to diagnose a data processing system comprising many separate components, some of which are optional. When that type of expert system employs a single integrated rulebase to diagnose the minimum system configuration of the data processing system, much of the rulebase is not required since many of the components which are optional units of the system will not be present in the system. Nevertheless, earlier expert systems require the entire rulebase to be stored since all the rules were, in effect, chained or linked together by the structure of the rulebase.
When the rulebase is segmented, preferably into contextual segments or units, it is then possible to eliminate portions of the Rulebase containing data or knowledge that is not needed in a particular application. The segmenting of the rulebase also allows the expert system to be run with systems or on systems having much smaller memory capacities than was possible with earlier arrangements since each segment of the rulebase can be paged into and out of the system as needed. The segmenting of the rulebase into contextual segments requires that the expert system manage various intersegment relationships as segments are paged into and out of memory during execution of the program. Since the system permits a rulebase segment to be called and executed at any time during the processing of the first rulebase, provision must be made to store the data that has been accumulated up to that point so that at some time later in the process, when the system returns to the first segment, it can proceed from the last point or rule node that was processed. Also, provision must be made so that data that has been collected by the system up to that point can be passed to the second segment of the rulebase after it has been paged into the system and data collected during the processing of the second segment can be passed to the first segment when the system returns to complete processing that segment.
As can be seen from this dialog, the system is leading the user through a set of questions, the purpose of which is to determine a suitable set of restaurants to recommend. This dialog begins with the system asking if the user already knows the restaurant choice (a common feature of expert systems) and immediately illustrates a characteristic of expert systems; users may choose not to respond to any question. In expert systems, dialogs are not pre-planned. There is no fixed control structure. Dialogs are synthesized from the current information and the contents of the knowledge base. Because of this, not being able to supply the answer to a particular question does not stop the consultation.
Another major distinction between expert systems and traditional systems is illustrated by the following answer given by the system when the user answers a question with another question, "Why", as occurred in the above example. The answer is:
It is very difficult to implement a general explanation system (answering questions like "Why" and "How") in a traditional computer program. An expert system can generate an explanation by retracing the steps of its reasoning. The response of the expert system to the question WHY is an exposure of the underlying knowledge structure. It is a rule; a set of antecedent conditions which, if true, allow the assertion of a consequent. The rule references values, and tests them against various constraints or asserts constraints onto them. This, in fact, is a significant part of the knowledge structure. There are values, which may be associated with some organizing entity. For example, the individual diner is an entity with various attributes (values) including whether they drink wine and the kind of wine. There are also rules, which associate the currently known values of some attributes with assertions that can be made about other attributes. It is the orderly processing of these rules that dictates the dialog itself.
In the expert system approach all of the problem related expertise is encoded in data structures only; none is in programs. This organization has several benefits.
An example may help contrast the traditional problem solving program with the expert system approach. The example is the problem of tax advice. In the traditional approach data structures describe the taxpayer and tax tables, and a program in which there are statements representing an expert tax consultant's knowledge, such as statements which relate information about the taxpayer to tax table choices. It is this representation of the tax expert's knowledge that is difficult for the tax expert to understand or modify.
In the expert system approach, the information about taxpayers and tax computations is again found in data structures, but now the knowledge describing the relationships between them is encoded in data structures as well. The programs of an expert system are independent of the problem domain (taxes) and serve to process the data structures without regard to the nature of the problem area they describe. For example, there are programs to acquire the described data values through user interaction, programs to represent and process special organizations of description, and programs to process the declarations that represent semantic relationships within the problem domain and an algorithm to control the processing sequence and focus.
The general architecture of an expert system involves two principal components: a problem dependent set of data declarations called the knowledge base or rule base, and a problem independent (although highly data structure dependent) program which is called the inference engine.
An expert system's rulebase is made up of many such inference rules. They are entered as separate rules and it is the inference engine that uses them together to draw conclusions. Because each rule is a unit, rules may be deleted or added without affecting other rules (though it should affect which conclusions are reached). One advantage of inference rules over traditional programming is that inference rules use reasoning which more closely resemble human reasoning.
Thus, when a conclusion is drawn, it is possible to understand how this conclusion was reached. Furthermore, because the expert system uses knowledge in a form similar to the expert, it may be easier to retrieve this information from the expert.
In the area of machine diagnostics using expert systems, particularly self-diagnostic applications, it is not possible to conclude the current state of "health" of a machine without some information. The best source of information is the machine itself, for it contains much detailed information that could not reasonably be provided by the operator.
The knowledge that is represented in the system appears in the rulebase. In the rulebase described in the cross-referenced applications, there are basically four different types of objects, with associated information present.
The rulebase comprises a forest of many trees. The top node of the tree is called the goal node, in that it contains the conclusion. Each tree in the forest has a different goal node. The leaves of the tree are also referred to as rule nodes, or one of the types of rule nodes. A leaf may be an evidence node, an external node, or a reference node.
An evidence node functions to obtain information from the operator by asking a specific question. In responding to a question presented by an evidence node, the operator is generally instructed to answer "yes" or "no" represented by numeric values 1 and 0 or provide a value of between 0 and 1, represented by a "maybe."
Questions which require a response from the operator other than yes or no or a value between 0 and 1 are handled in a different manner.
A leaf that is an external node indicates that data will be used which was obtained from a procedure call.
A reference node functions to refer to another tree or subtree.
A tree may also contain intermediate or minor nodes between the goal node and the leaf node. An intermediate node can represent logical operations like And or Or.
The word "tracing" refers to the action the system takes as it traverses the tree, asking classes (questions), calling procedures, and calculating confidences as it proceeds.
As explained in the cross-referenced applications, the selection of a tree depends on the ordering of the trees. The original ordering of the trees is the order in which they appear in the rulebase. This order can be changed, however, by assigning an evidence node an attribute "initial" which is described in detail in these applications. The first action taken is to obtain values for all evidence nodes which have been assigned an "initial" attribute. Using only the answers to these initial evidences, the rules are ordered so that the most likely to succeed is evaluated first. The trees can be further re-ordered since they are constantly being updated as a selected tree is being traced.
It has been found that the type of information that is solicited by the system from the user by means of questions or classes should be tailored to the level of knowledge of the user. In many applications, the group of prospective uses is nicely defined and the knowledge level can be estimated so that the questions can be presented at a level which corresponds generally to the average user. However, in other applications, knowledge of the specific domain of the expert system might vary considerably among the group of prospective users.
One application where this is particularly true involves the use of an expert system, operating in a self-diagnostic mode on a personal computer to assist the operator of the personal computer to diagnose the cause of a fault or error in either the hardware or software. In general, asking the operator for information is the most straightforward way for the expert system to gather information assuming, of course, that the information is or should be within the operator's understanding. For example, in diagnosing a personal computer, the expert system must know the major functional components of the system. It could ask the operator, for instance, if the display is a monochrome or color display. The operator should, in all probability, be able to provide the correct answer 100% of the time. The expert system could, on the other hand, cause a test unit to be run to determine the type of display. The accuracy of the data collected by either approach in this instance probably would not be that different so the knowledge engineer could employ either approach without affecting the accuracy of the diagnosis. However, in many instances, because of the nature of the information being solicited, it is better to obtain the information from the system rather than asking the operator, because the accuracy of the data supplied by the operator is so low that the system could not effectively process it to a meaningful conclusion.
In many situations the information is already in the system, in a form of which permits the correct answer to a question to be obtained through a process of inductive or deductive reasoning. The data previously collected by the system could be answers provided by the user to less complex questions that were asked for a different reason or results returned from test units that were previously run.
Any values entered by the user must be received and interpreted by the user interface. Some responses are restricted to a set of possible legal answers, others are not. The user interface checks all responses to insure that they are of the correct data type. Any responses that are restricted to a legal set of answers are compared against these legal answers. Whenever the user enters an illegal answer, the user interface informs the user that his answer was invalid and prompts him to correct it.
A good example of application of expert systems in banking area is expert systems for mortgages. Loan departments are interested in expert systems for mortgages because of the growing cost of labour which makes the handling and acceptance of relatively small loans less profitable. They also see in the application of expert systems a possibility for standardised, efficient handling of mortgage loan, and appreciate that for the acceptance of mortgages there are hard and fast rules which do not always exist with other types of loans.
While expert systems have distinguished themselves in AI research in finding practical application, their application has been limited. Expert systems are notoriously narrow in their domain of knowledge—as an amusing example, a researcher used the "skin disease" expert system to diagnose his rustbucket car as likely to have developed measles—and the systems were thus prone to making errors that humans would easily spot. Additionally, once some of the mystique had worn off, most programmers realized that simple expert systems were essentially just slightly more elaborate versions of the decision logic they had already been using. Therefore, some of the techniques of expert systems can now be found in most complex programs without any fuss about them.
An example, and a good demonstration of the limitations of, an expert system used by many people is the Microsoft Windows operating system troubleshooting software located in the "help" section in the taskbar menu. Obtaining expert / technical operating system support is often difficult for individuals not closely involved with the development of the operating system. Microsoft has designed their expert system to provide solutions, advice, and suggestions to common errors encountered throughout using the operating systems.
Another 1970s and 1980s application of expert systems — which we today would simply call AI — was in computer games. For example, the computer baseball games Earl Weaver Baseball and Tony La Russa Baseball each had highly detailed simulations of the game strategies of those two baseball managers. When a human played the game against the computer, the computer queried the Earl Weaver or Tony La Russa Expert System for a decision on what strategy to follow. Even those choices where some randomness was part of the natural system (such as when to throw a surprise pitch-out to try to trick a runner trying to steal a base) were decided based on probabilities supplied by Weaver or La Russa. Today we would simply say that "the game's AI provided the opposing manager's strategy."
Typically, the problems to be solved are of the sort that would normally be tackled by a medical or other professional. Real experts in the problem domain (which will typically be very narrow, for instance "diagnosing skin conditions in human teenagers") are asked to provide "rules of thumb" on how they evaluate the problems, either explicitly with the aid of experienced systems developers, or sometimes implicitly, by getting such experts to evaluate test cases and using computer programs to examine the test data and (in a strictly limited manner) derive rules from that. Generally, expert systems are used for problems for which there is no single "correct" solution which can be encoded in a conventional algorithm — one would not write an expert system to find shortest paths through graphs, or sort data, as there are simply easier ways to do these tasks.
Simple systems use simple true/false logic to evaluate data. more sophisticated systems are capable of performing at least some evaluation, taking into account real-world uncertainties, using such methods as fuzzy logic. Such sophistication is difficult to develop and still highly imperfect.
A shell is a complete development environment for building and maintaining knowledge-based applications. It provides a step-by-step methodology for a knowledge engineer that allows the domain experts themselves to be directly involved in structuring and encoding the knowledge. Use of shells reduces development time up to 50%. Many commercial shells are available.