Expert systems – AI at Work

Jack Prot

Expert systems – Good as Hitech is at chess, it is totally helpless at other games or tasks. This is because Hitech is only programmed to play chess. Its memory has been stocked with a vast amount of information about chess moves and step-by-step instructions that enable it to “think” in a logical fashion. In other words, as far as chess playing is concerned, Hitech is an expert. And that is precisely what computer scientists call devices such as Hitech–expert systems.

An expert system is basically a computer stocked with an extensive collection of information in a particular field. Along with this, it is programmed in such a way that it can guide a user to the precise information he needs with a minimum of time and effort. It often does this by means of a set of if-then rules: If a certain condition is true, then a certain action should be followed. The user “communicates” with the expert system through a keyboard and video screen or some other device. The store of information and the if-then process give such expert systems the appearance of intelligence — artificial intelligence.

Today, expert systems are being used in various aspects of medicine, computer design, mineral prospecting, accounting, investment management, space flight, and so on. Computer scientists are working on expert systems that can process not just one if-then situation at a time but many such operations simultaneously, as does the human mind. Also under development are systems that can “see,” “hear,” and “speak,” albeit in a limited way. All of this has caused concern in some circles. Will computers become as smart as, or even smarter than, man?

Is There Any Limit?

What scientists have been able to do with expert computer systems is truly impressive. There remains, however, the crucial question: Are these systems really intelligent? What would we say, for example, of a person who can play powerful chess but can do or learn hardly anything else? Would we really consider him intelligent? Obviously not. “An intelligent person learns something in one area and applies it to problems in other areas,” explains William J. Cromie, executive director of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Here then is the crux of the matter: Can computers be made to approach the level of intelligence found in humans? In other words, can intelligence really be artificially made?

So far, no scientists or computer engineers have been able to reach that goal. In spite of the prediction about chess-playing computers, made over 30 years ago now, the world champion is still a human. And in spite of the claim that computers will be able to understand conversations in English or other natural languages, this still remains at a rudimentary level. Yes, no one has learned how to build the quality of generality into a computer.

Take language, for instance. Even in simple speech, thousands of words are strung together in millions of combinations. For a computer to understand a sentence, it must be capable of checking all the possible combinations of every word in the sentence simultaneously, and it must have an enormous number of rules and definitions stored in its memory. This is far beyond what present-day computers can do. Yet, even a child can manage all of this, plus perceive the nuances beyond the spoken words. He can discern whether the speaker can be trusted or is being devious, whether a statement is to be taken literally or as a joke. The computer is not up to these challenges.

The same can be said about expert systems with the ability to “see,” like the robots used in automotive manufacturing. One advanced system with three-dimensional vision takes 15 seconds to recognize an object. It takes the human eye and brain only one ten-thousandth of a second to do the same. The human eye has the innate ability to see what is important and filter out nonessentials. The computer is simply inundated by the mass of details it “sees.”

Thus, in spite of the advances and promises of the state of the art in AI, “most scientists believe that computer systems will never have the broad range of intelligence, motivation, skills, and creativity possessed by human beings,” says Cromie. Likewise, renowned science writer Isaac Asimov states: “I doubt the computer will ever match the intuition and creative powers of the remarkable human mind.”

A fundamental obstacle in achieving true intelligence artificially is the fact that no scientist or computer engineer fully understands how the human mind really works. No one knows the precise relationship between the brain and the mind or how the mind uses the information stored in the brain to make a decision or to solve a problem. “Because I don’t know how I do [certain things with my mind], I cannot possibly program a computer to reproduce what I do,” confesses Asimov. Putting it another way, if no one knows what intelligence really is, how can it be built into a computer?

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