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Expert Systems

By Brian | May 22, 2009 | Share on Facebook

When I was in college, I took a CompSci course on what was then called “Expert Systems.” The idea was to build computer software that took a complex question with a large number of possible solutions (e.g., What is wrong with the patient?) and then ask a series of questions that would divide the possible solutions into two or more groups (e.g., Does the patient have a fever?). Based on the answer to the first question, one group of answers would remain possibilities, and the others would be declared wrong. Then, further questions could be asked to cull the list down even further. So, to carry on with the above example, if the patient had a fever, you could probably rule out things like gunshot or broken bone, and ask a question like “Does the patient have a rash?” If he/she did not have a fever, you might proceed with something like “Is the patient bleeding?” In the ideal world, you eventually get down to one possible solution, having ruled out all the others, and you have your answer.

The appeal of such systems at the time was that they could combine the knowledge of many experts into one repository, producing a system that was “smarter” than any one of the experts on his/her own. In other words, a given expert (a doctor, in the above example) would look at the question list, and add a question at a certain point in the “tree” that would further sub-divide the list of possible ailments vs. incorrect diagnoses. This led to discussions about artificial intelligence, which can basically be boiled down to “knowing a lot of facts doesn’t give you qualities like instinct, experimentation, or even common sense,” but I digress…

Today, systems like this aren’t necessarily curing patients’ ills, but they are quite prevalent in things like customer service centers. When you call that dreaded 800 number and finally get a human being (in India), and the person sounds like he/she is reading from a “script,” it is likely to be a system like this, hoping to get you to your answer in the minimum number of questions.

Anyway, I bring it up because someone recently pointed me to a neat little website called identifont.com. The site assumes you’re looking at a particular typeface and want to know what font it is. It asks you a series of questions, each designed to eliminate a bunch of fonts in it’s database. When it’s done asking questions, it “guesses” at the font you’re looking at (the one in the “remains possible” list with the highest calculated chance of success) and then gives you other alternatives to try if it guessed wrong (the remainder of the “remains possible” list).

In our web-filled world, I thought this was an excellent use of the Expert System approach. I’d also recommend they talk to my friend Jeff who has this freakish ability to distinguish between seemingly identical fonts using nothing but his own brain…

Topics: Tech Talk | 1 Comment »

One Response to “Expert Systems”

  1. Jeff Porten says at May 26th, 2009 at 1:54 pm :
    Freakish? Heck, I consider myself a dilettante font identifier. Talk to someone who does graphic design for a living for freakish.


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