Definition

expert system

Contributor(s): Scot Petersen

An expert system is a computer program that uses artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to simulate the judgment and behavior of a human or an organization that has expert knowledge and experience in a particular field.

Typically, an expert system incorporates a knowledge base containing accumulated experience and an inference or rules engine -- a set of rules for applying the knowledge base to each particular situation that is described to the program. The system's capabilities can be enhanced with additions to the knowledge base or to the set of rules. Current systems may include machine learning capabilities that allow them to improve their performance based on experience, just as humans do.

The concept of expert systems was first developed in the 1970s by Edward Feigenbaum, professor and founder of the Knowledge Systems Laboratory at Stanford University. Feigenbaum explained that the world was moving from data processing to "knowledge processing," a transition which was being enabled by new processor technology and computer architectures.

Expert systems have played a large role in many industries including in financial services, telecommunications, healthcare, customer service, transportation, video games, manufacturing, aviation and written communication. Two early expert systems broke ground in the healthcare space for medical diagnoses: Dendral, which helped chemists identify organic molecules, and MYCIN, which helped to identify bacteria such as bacteremia and meningitis, and to recommend antibiotics and dosages.

A more recently developed expert system, ROSS, is an artificially-intelligent attorney based on IBM's Watson cognitive computing system. ROSS relies on self-learning systems that use data mining, pattern recognition, deep learning and natural language processing to mimic the way the human brain works.

Expert systems and AI systems have evolved so far that they have spurred debate about the fate of humanity in the face of such intelligence, with authors such as Nick Bostrom, professor of philosophy at Oxford University, pondering if computing power has surpassed our ability to control it.

This was last updated in June 2016

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