In the mid-80s a technology appeared with a striking marketing story: a product that promised to capture the expertise of skilled humans and then codify that expertise into a program.
Transformed into such a program (so to speak), an expert would be continuously available and ubiquitously deployable, even if he or she had long since left the company. The defining property of these so-called expert systems was that they made it easy to define, express, monitor and alter sets of rules associating inputs with outputs. (Ordinary programs, by contrast, tended to bury these rules deep within the code.) A programmer would interview an expert, present various possibilities and code up his or her solutions as a set of if/then rules. Thereafter a user entering an "if" condition would be shown the action that the expert would have taken in that situation.
Despite a huge hype attack by the media, the first five years of the expert system business were lean ones. According to many, the problem was that these early systems were used to address overly complex business problems, were incompatible with the rest of the corporate computing environment and required their own experts to operate them. Where was the logic in dispensing with the need for one expert by acquiring a need for another?
At the time, we were much more enthusiastic about the prospects for a simpler and more modest generation of expert systems appearing on the market.
These new systems were being used for highly defined applications addressing everyday issues like credit verification, underwriting approvals, resource scheduling and network diagnostics. According to the article, the payback periods were measured in months or less.
Nonetheless, the adoption curve of the technology stayed modest. According to Nalini Elkins, CTO and cofounder of Applied Expert Systems, a network management tools vendor, one problem was the name. "If you called something an expert system, people's expectations rose.
Companies would try it out on their toughest problem and usually the program would fail." Vendors could not just scale up the intelligence of their products, since programs that can deal with every situation take forever to build.
Elkins says that as a practical matter, expert systems are best suited for routine cases; tougher problems should be kicked "upstairs" to human beings.
"We talked a lot about how we could rename the technology," said Ulf Strom, CEO of Design Power, a company that uses expert systems to design work processes and mechanical and chemical engineering processes.
A second problem, according to Tod Loofborrow, president and CEO of Authoria, an expert systems development house specialising in human resources and health-care information, was that functions like credit verification required high levels of interoperability with other corporate information.
Years of work were needed to achieve compatibility.
During the last decade, expert systems have become so integrated that they have turned into parts of processes. Vendors continue to sell them embedded into various products but seldom mention their presence. Programs are sold based on their functionality for a given application, not on whether they are "expert" or not. The new robot mind became part of the plumbing.
This self-effacement may have delivered them to their true role, that of Web-based interfaces to corporate data resources.
"Expert systems can personalise enquiries to the nth degree," says Loofborrow, whose systems let employees explore their benefits policies on the Web.
Akeel Al-Attar, of Attar Systems, thinks expert systems are a natural support system for e-commerce, since consumer "interviews" are rule bound and require much back and forth with corporate databases.
He gives as an example a Japanese pump manufacturer and Attar Systems customer, Ebara Manufacturing, that produces several thousand kinds of pumps for many industries. Traditionally, customers would just ask for a pump. Sales personnel had to figure out what kind.
As products got more numerous and sophisticated, this manual system started to break down. Ebara fixed this problem with an online expert system. The system brings customers through a series of questions that connect their needs to specific products, often in less than a minute.
Al-Attar points out a subtle edge enjoyed by this new generation of outward-facing expert systems. One reason why the programs written 10 years ago did not enjoy the success most expected, he suggests, was that they were internal systems; all they did was reduce costs.
E-commerce applications bring in revenue. While it might be true that a saved dollar contains the same number of cents as an earned dollar, technologies that make money tend to get front-office attention. In the end, this may prove to be an even better marketing story than capturing the wisdom of experts.
- Fred Hapgood
If your organisation's e-mail traffic isn't growing exponentially, then you're probably the IS manager at Luddites Pty Ltd and you don't need to read this. The rest of you are likely seeing huge increases in both the volume and size of electronic messages. Yet according to US-based Ferris Research, IS departments are underestimating how much network bandwidth and e-mail storage capacity they will need to keep up with the increased e-mail flow.
A recent survey of IS departments at 24 organisations found that most expected their message stores to grow by roughly 50 per cent over the ensuing 12-month period. But given that new message volume is projected to grow from 60 per cent to 80 per cent during that time, message sizes will likely double or triple, and users are loath to delete old messages. IS departments should really be planning for a 100 per cent to 150 per cent increase in storage and a three- to fivefold increase in WAN bandwidth.
Why are IS department e-mail estimates coming up short? David Ferris, president of Ferris Research, notes that most IS departments don't have adequate tools to monitor and predict e-mail capacity needs; he recommends that they deploy such tools to avoid future surprises. To get a handle on old e-mail storage, Ferris recommends using tools to manage, archive and delete messages. And the future may offer another solution: during the next five years, Ferris predicts e-mail storage will gradually become integrated with file storage systems, especially as e-mail becomes used more and more frequently to send and store voice, fax, graphics and other types of files.
- Sari Kalin