In-Depth

Call for expert systems

The software development process has never been so complex. Software developers are intensive knowledge workers. Every day, they must apply their hard-earned development skills to the fullest.

They must continuously learn more because new trends and technologies emerge while yesterday's become obsolete. They must not only understand new trends and technologies, they need to know how to adopt them quickly and productively -- a tough assignment even for the hardest-working experts.

More specifically, relevant knowledge manifests itself in terms of best practices, guidelines, methodologies and the like. In particular, this kind of knowledge manifests itself in terms of development standards like UML or the Unified Process; application platform and middleware standards such as .NET or J2EE; and lower-level implementation standards such as Java, C#, HTML and XML. Developers must access, distill and interpret such knowledge -- continuously and just-in-time -- for the system under construction.

Many of the problems that currently bedevil projects stem from an inability to apply relevant knowledge. Developers may lack both training and experience, often because of the shortage of skilled people. And the demand for skilled people is expected to increase by more than 100% in the next six years.

Projects are always rushed, which leaves developers limited time for learning. So often, relevant knowledge that can take too much time and effort to access, distill and interpret remains unexploited.

The consequences of this are devastating. The exclusion of relevant knowledge results in lower productivity, higher costs and sub-standard quality. It may even lead to project failure when development tasks become too challenging.

If nothing is done, this situation will only get worse. Technology is getting more complex, business requirements are becoming harder to fulfill, lead times have become shorter and quality requirements constantly become higher. There is no magic way out. The question is: What can be done about it?

The past vision
In 1980 I wrote a letter to my CEO proposing that European high-tech firm Ericsson leverage its component-based software development approach in three steps: first, make the Ericsson software modeling language a standard language; second, develop a standard Ericsson software development process; and third, develop a support system that employs knowledge-based reasoning.

As for Step 1, Ericsson had already (partly) succeeded by standardizing a language, SDL, as a world standard for telecom systems (see Specification and Description Language, ITU-T Recommendation Z.100, March 1993). SDL inspired the development of the Unified Modeling Language (UML) (see www.omg.org/uml), which was adopted by the Object Management Group (OMG) as a standard in 1997. Many of the ideas in UML -- such as sequence diagrams, collaboration diagrams, activity diagrams and state charts -- were in use at Ericsson in the late 1960s.

As for Step 2, the work process used at Ericsson was actually a forerunner of the Objectory process that has now evolved into the Rational Unified Process (RUP) (see www.rational.com/rup), which is becoming a de facto standard. It also inspired an OMG standard for process modeling called the Software Process Engineering Metamodel (SPEM) (see www.omg.org).

As for Step 3, knowledge-based systems, expert systems, artificial intelligence (AI) systems and the like were judged to be very promising new technologies in the 1970s and early 1980s. Unfortunately, many of the companies that were founded to take advantage of the new technologies failed and were gone by the late 1980s. The implementation technologies available at that time just did not fulfill high and sometimes over-hyped expectations.

Two decades later, the time has finally come for knowledge-based systems to take a stab at the challenges of software development and the chaos these challenges bring. The standards and technologies required to meet these challenges are now in place.

The software developer assistant
Thus, we introduce the notion of a developer assistant (DA) to provide some of the expert knowledge a developer needs, such as development guidelines, language specifications and process descriptions. The DA can reason with that knowledge to help achieve results comparable to those of expert developers.

Instead of requiring a software developer to have all requisite knowledge, the DA can support developers in three ways: by capturing a significant part of the knowledge, by reasoning based on this knowledge and by automating the application of this knowledge.

The fundamental requirements are:
* The DA must by its nature be part of an integrated development environment. It must harmonize, interact and co-exist with other tools for tasks like modeling and coding.

* The DA must understand the goals of the developer at any particular time. For example, a goal could include the software artifacts a developer is about to produce, and the expected level of quality.

* The DA must be able to reason in the developer's own context. The reasoning needs to be done as needed, often in dialogue with the developer. This capability calls for mechanisms within the DA to structure knowledge. An important coordinate condition is that it does not interfere with other tasks of the developer.

* The DA must be based on development standards such as UML. Capturing DA knowledge requires significant effort and investment.

* The DA can be focused and configured to suit the needs of specific projects or organizations. These needs may, for example, depend on the type of software system being developed (such as banking, insurance, telecom or air-traffic control), or on the size and complexity of the project or organization. Therefore, the knowledge provided by the DA may be used selectively, and that new knowledge may be added specific to the needs of the project or organization.

* The knowledge provided by a DA must be easy to update, because change is natural when it comes to knowledge. Simply put, knowledge must be structured for "plug and play."

We have reached a milestone where such requirements are fully realizable. We can build a DA for software development that can be useful from day one. We can also grow through changes to operate over the long run.

Integrating the development environment
The DA is not an island. On the contrary, the DA needs to be a complement to a more complete environment -- an environment that contains supporting technologies like modeling and coding tools, configuration management tools and the like.

Existing tools can help developers in specific areas such as requirements capture, design, implementation, architecture and configuration management. These can offer sophisticated functionality to describe, maintain and visualize software artifacts, along with an ability to integrate with other tools. Existing tools can continue to perform such functions while continuing to be improved through the years.

Current tool strategies focus on supporting developers' knowledge -- there is plenty of room for improvement. Despite some initiatives to "open up" knowledge (such as "dynamic help" in Visual Studio), it is often still locked in passive repositories or static help systems. Existing tools often only serve up specific "knowledge pages" like tool manuals and development guidelines, based on explicit requests. Such tools are, in many respects, read-only dumb terminals -- developers can only browse information when they know what they need. It is often difficult to apply such knowledge to the problem at hand because it is not served in a useful way.

Developers must be able to access knowledge in a productive manner, set the knowledge in context and apply it to the problem at hand. This is the DA's role.

To complete such a mission, the DA must interact with other development tools. For example, to evaluate knowledge, the DA must detect the state of artifacts managed within other tools. As the developer applies knowledge, any automated support provided by the DA needs to refine the artifacts accordingly. Moreover, the DA may need to refer to specific knowledge, such as help topics, in existing online documentation within the other tools of the development environment, instead of having to redefine this information within itself. This integration will be illustrated later.

The developer's goals
A project's goals are often defined in terms of milestones. A milestone concludes a phase or iteration, and is more or less standardized.

Based on the overall goals, one must set up the goals for each developer participating in the project. This is -- from a technical standpoint -- naturally done in terms of roles, activities and artifacts (R/A/A): Developers adopt roles as they perform activities that result in artifacts.

Roles: A role is adopted by a developer or by a group of developers working together. It defines a set of related activities best performed by an individual or group, and a set of related software artifacts that are the responsibility of the individual or group adopting the role.

Activities: An activity is performed by the developer and defines a focused piece of development work; an activity is performed by using some existing artifacts as input, and produces as results new or refined artifacts as output.

Artifacts: An artifact is created or maintained by a developer, and can be a software work product like the source code for a class, a use case (including its description), or any other model element. Such an artifact is a part of the software system under construction.

Thus, a DA for software development needs to understand the R/A/A that are relevant to the software developers.

As an example of R/A/A, consider a developer adopting the System Analyst role and performing its related activities Find Actors and Use Cases and Structure the Use-Case Model; these activities result in a refined Use-Case Model artifact that captures requirements made on the software system.

This structure is applicable in any development discipline. Additional examples are class design activities performed by designers that result in classes, and test activities performed by testers that result in test specifications and/or identified defects.

From this, we can draw the following conclusions:
What knowledge to capture. The most essential knowledge to be captured by the DA and dynamically provided to the developer is how to adopt roles and perform activities in a productive and focused manner. More specifically, it is knowledge about how to develop "good" artifacts ("good" model abstractions and "good" runtime components).

When to apply knowledge. The activities are excellent instruments for making this determination because, given that the DA understands when the developer performs an activity, it can support this particular context. The DA does this by preparing parts of the knowledge significant to the activity or micro-activity in progress, and by immediately serving it to the developer "just in time."

What to apply knowledge to. The answer is obvious: Knowledge should be applied to software artifacts as they are developed in activities. The application of knowledge then refines existing artifacts in various ways.

Thus, a DA must understand the developer's goals -- the roles, activities and artifacts (R/A/A) relevant to the developer. As a result, we understand what knowledge to capture, as well as when and how it should be applied.

Making knowledge useful and accessible
As a vehicle for capturing, structuring and applying knowledge, we employ a rule-based language so the DA can serve knowledge in the right context (roles and activities) just when it is needed and apply it automatically to the software system (artifacts) under development.

When knowledge is to be captured, consider goals in terms of R/A/A. From these one can derive structured knowledge in terms of rules.

This rule-based language primarily uses ideas from some well-known formal languages, such as first-order predicate logics, basic collection and set operations, and the Object Constraint Language (see Reference 1). The rules in this language basically detect interesting states of software artifacts and then propose new and better states of those artifacts. The overall purpose, of course, is to enhance the quality of artifacts under development.

Detecting existing state. The first step in capturing knowledge is to decide what state of the knowledge domain is interesting to reason about. One example of an interesting state is faults such as errors and inconsistencies in artifacts. Another example is a state of incompleteness such as an artifact that is missing or not fully described.

Proposing new states via rules. The second step of capturing knowledge is to decide what to do with a detected state of a software artifact, thereby proposing a new state of the artifact. Such a new state can include, for example, that we create other (new) artifacts related to the first artifact, that we provide refinement opportunities in the artifact, or that we fix errors or inconsistencies in the artifact.

To specify this action, we employ a refined variant of if-then rules, sometimes also called productions, situation-action rules (see Reference 2) or condition-action rules. Each such rule is then used as a mechanism to decompose and structure knowledge into small, manageable and focused chunks that can be automated.

The "then" part of rules can either completely automate reaching a new state, or can help the developer reach the new state via a dialogue. Moreover, the "then" part of rules can sometimes propose several alternative new states, especially when there is no single recommendation on how to handle a problem.

To give more concrete examples of if-then rules, let's consider the System Analyst role and its related activities, Find Actors and Use Cases and Structure the Use Case Model. This example results in a refined Use Case Model artifact (as discussed above). From the Find Actors and Use Cases activity, we derive a simple rule example.

The rule in this example is based on the assumption that every concrete use case in the use case model should be associated with an actor. Thus, if a concrete use case not associated with any actor were detected, we could specify a rule that proposes new states of the use case.

When this rule fires, there may be many reasons why an association is missing. However, the "then" part proposes a number of alternative recommendations for correcting the model.

For this rule to be useful to a developer in a concrete situation, it must describe in more detail the detected (suspect) state of the model and the consequences of following the corrective recommendations. We still include the simple rule here to communicate the notion and essence of if-then rules in a real situation.

Some other rule types we have found are:
* Rules to get started (initially) building software system models by detecting more or fewer empty models and then suggesting ways to start identifying and describing new elements within the model.

* Rules for model completion that identify missing model elements such as subsystems, classes, relationships and so on, and then propose corresponding model refinements.

* Rules for employing software patterns (see Reference 3).

* Rules for evaluations and reviews of models that identify checkpoints such as formal inconsistencies, errors or anti-patterns in the model, and then propose corresponding model corrections.

This approach to using rules can support all stages of development: the initial stage, the more creative stages, the more ongoing work and, finally, the evaluations and reviews to assure the quality of artifacts before delivery. This approach is important because almost all adoptions of roles and activities go through these stages.

Imagine thousands or even tens of thousands of rules being packaged and served by the DA just-when-needed within the roles and activities adopted by a software developer. The DA can help developers make the correct decisions at the right time by automating the use of relevant expert knowledge. Such rules can let the developer take action if he or she finds it appropriate; the more and better rules are, the better a developer can progress.

Intelligent software agents
Since the late 1980s, the development of software-based agents has skyrocketed in a wide range of application areas (see References 2 and 4). Many important academic institutes, such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon, have formed significant agent research groups. There is also standardization work on agents by consortia like the OMG. There are interest groups that base agent technologies on standard modeling languages like UML. And on the commercial side, we see agent technology from key suppliers, like Microsoft Agent, for example. And there are Web sites, such as www.agentland.com, that list agent-based companies and products.

Something that can serve as yet another concrete example of this general trend is an online bibliography like the one on software agents available at the Collection of Computer Science Bibliographies (see Reference 5). At press time, the site listed an unbelievable 2,480 agent-related references, most of which were written between 1997 and 2001.

Key agent characteristics
In general, one can discuss the characteristics of software-based agents, but an industry-standard definition of an agent has not yet emerged. But here is what I think are the key characteristics of a software-based agent -- those that distinguish an agent from "ordinary" objects and components. These key characteristics are:
* An agent is based on a significant set of knowledge and thus can reason. Within the DA, agents primarily represent knowledge in terms of rules. Agents may also represent knowledge in other ways -- in terms of attributes, states and the like.

* An agent has autonomous behavior in that it is self-driven and acts on its own behalf without direct external intervention. Based on its ability to reason, it can decide when to act. When the agent draws conclusions, it can notify its environment, such as other agents or a developer. Given those conclusions, it can even take actions by itself. The environment, such as a developer, can then decide what to do with the agent's conclusions. Within the agent, this autonomous behavior is driven by rule machinery that proactively evaluates rules.

* An agent has a well-defined goal represented by the knowledge it possesses and by its behavior: that is, its ability to reason given that knowledge. An agent simply tries to reason to fulfill its goal.

We may also discuss other characteristics of agents, such as collaboration, adaptability, mobility, life cycle and so on, if required, but we think these are more like consequences or aspects of the above. Given this limitation, what do these key characteristics really mean when considering the DA as an agent system?

The DA is a multi-agent system
The basic idea is that the DA should be implemented as a collection of software-based agents, or as a multi-agent system. An agent is created to manage a role adopted by the developer, an activity being performed by the developer, or a software artifact the developer is responsible for. Thus we have role agents, activity agents and artifact agents.

The rationale for this model is:
* The role agent's goal is to help developers adopt roles and to be responsible for artifacts, as well as for starting and performing activities as appropriate.

* The activity agent's goal is to help a developer perform an activity. It includes providing directions and guidelines within the activity on what to do, and how and when to do it.

* The artifact agent's goal is to help maintain a correct state of the artifact. The artifact should be well formed according to its definition of both syntactical and semantic aspects.

* When an activity is performed, a set of artifacts is input and output as results. An artifact agent can be created to handle each such artifact.

* Other development tools in the development environment serve as a repository for artifacts as seen from the DA's perspective (see above).

* The Artifact Proxy entity represents "passive" artifact data acquired from the other tools, as the original artifact physically lives in these external tools. The knowledge (rules) of the various agents may need to access this artifact data as rules are evaluated. Moreover, any change of this artifact proxy (as initiated by agents) is assumed to be reflected in the actual artifacts residing in the other development tools.

This agent system is then configurable in the sense that the developer can select what types of agents to use, and then adjust the knowledge (rules) of these agents if required.

The agent system: A concrete scenario
The concrete scenario within the agent system illustrates the adoption of a role. This scenario can be described as follows: Joe, a software developer, decides to adopt the System Analyst role (adopt role). A corresponding role agent is created.

To start with, the role agent suggests that Joe should be responsible for the Use-Case Model artifact. Joe accepts this responsibility, and a corresponding artifact agent is created to assist Joe (assign responsibility).

Then the role agent suggests that Joe start performing the Find Actors and Use Cases activity to develop the Use-Case Model. Joe agrees and a corresponding activity agent is created (perform). Then the activity agent is set up to refer to the artifact proxy regarding input and output of the activity (set input/output), and the corresponding artifact agent is initiated to handle the output artifact (initiate); Joe of course confirms this.

Now, the artifact and activity agents start to reason, given their specific knowledge of rules. To evaluate the rules, they may access and refine the Use-Case Model artifact proxy (access/refine). Then, additional support from these agents is provided in a dialogue with Joe (support).

This is continued as follows: Based on the dialogue with Joe, more refinements (access/refine) are made on the Use-Case Model artifact. At some point, the role agent may propose that other activities be performed -- such as Structure the Use Case Model -- then if Joe accepts, corresponding activity agents would be created. This way, new agents are created, supported and finally terminated based on the developers' goals.

Of course, the developer can at any time work with the artifacts directly in other development tools. However, the basic idea is that the DA is proactive and continuously provides support (recommendations on how to solve relevant problems) to the developer, given the developer's goals. The developer may turn to the DA whenever he or she feels the need.

Supporting micro-activities
Each agent can support the developer via a fairly large number of rules. The agent presents the rules, and then it is often up to the developer to select a single rule and apply it in context. There are ways to make rules easier to use. One way, for example, is to categorize them according to steps within an activity agent. Another way is to prioritize them.

Many rules can sometimes appear simultaneously. For example, within an activity agent the many-rules approach typically fails to adequately support a novice developer. The novice may be more passive, which may require the DA to be more proactive.

To handle this problem, an agent can group related rules into larger constellations of rules. The novice can then use the rules in sequence. Each such rule constellation can support more large-grained modeling tasks than individual rules can do per se. A constellation also gives a more proactive support by guiding the developer through several rules in sequence. Thus the developer is not required to decide individual rules for each task.

There are many kinds of "large-grained modeling tasks," or micro-activities, that have been identified as appropriate for this kind of support. For example, one can identify all elements of a certain type (actors) in a model. Another is to merge or split complex model elements, as in refactoring. A third is to review a model element by going through a set of checkpoints. All these micro-activities need to involve several more primitive rules that can be applied in sequence.

DA components
To implement the DA as an agent system, a number of components are required to realize the different agents.

The components are the following:
Rule language compiler and rule machinery. Because rules are specified using a high-level rule language, they need to be compiled into a format that can be evaluated by rule machinery. The rule machinery is, in turn, incorporated and used within each agent, so an agent can evaluate the rules relevant to itself in its own context.

User experience. The developer experiences the agents through a user interface that handles all user input to and output from the agents.

Model server. Agents and their rules need to access and refine the artifact proxies (when driven by a developer). This access, in turn, needs to be reflected in the development tools hosting the artifacts. Consequently, the purpose of the model server is to manage all artifact proxies relevant to the agents together as a complete model, to keep proxies updated and consistent with the original artifacts hosted in the external development tools, and to update the artifacts in these tools as requested by agents.

Process configuration. The development process supported by the agent system often needs to be configured to suit a specific developer and project. The degree of this adaptation depends, for example, on the software quality ambitions of the project. It also depends on the complexity and type of software system being developed. The purpose here is to configure the DA to support a specific development process personalized to a particular developer.

A transparent development process
Many examples show that adopting a development process can yield success. But the adoption must be sound and incremental. It must include adequate mentoring and training of the development team. It must be based on the use of appropriate development tools. There are, of course, challenges with this approach. One is the place of "soft factors." The Unified Process, for example, puts its primary focus on methodology and how to master technology. That still leaves a wide range of soft factors, including how to treat people as individuals, how to make them prosper, how to consider their competencies, how to deal with their attitudes, how to facilitate the means of communication and how to encourage collaboration.

In particular, there is a significant challenge with the description of a process. Potential users can perceive a process as too large and too generic. They can find it out of context and off-target. This difficulty in communication can make it hard for developers and teams to digest the process. In the worst case, it can decrease their drive and creativity on the job. Thus there is a risk that the process can hinder more than it helps. It can become a burden and lead developers to discard the process and start inventing new processes on the fly, resulting in an out-of-control project.

The DA does not handle all these challenges by itself. However, the DA can serve process on a silver platter by making it more alive and by streamlining it to increase support for the individual developer and his or her team.

One can approach the process issue in terms of transparency. That is, a development process can be transparent to the developer. Transparency means that developers face a minimal initial threshold before they can use the process. They should not have to assimilate a lot of knowledge before they can follow the process. It should be easy to acquire the knowledge relevant at any specific point in time. It should be easy to put the knowledge in context and apply it to the problem at hand.

In this sense, we find it obvious that the DA can help in achieving a transparent process because:
* The DA puts the individual developer in focus. It selectively presents and applies knowledge for the developer, just in time, based on the developer's goals to adopt, activities to perform and software artifacts to be responsible for.

* The DA promotes alignment and supports collaboration among development teams. It encourages the use of a development process preferred by all team members. It serves (via agents) as a medium for developer communication.

* The DA can adapt by detecting patterns in developer behavior, and then refine its support (rules) automatically.

Current DA initiatives
Currently, there are only a few initiatives that fall under the concept of a DA as outlined above. Two are worth mentioning here: Argo/UML (argouml.tigris.org) and Jaczone WayPointer.

Jaczone WayPointer (www.jaczone.com) is an agent system primarily developed on top of products such as Rational Rose and the Unified Process. Although WayPointer is not a full DA, it is a useful first step. WayPointer supports developers that adopt roles and perform development activities within use case modeling, analysis and design.

The software developer assistant (DA) can empower individual developers in their daily work assignments. It can help them work as a team.

The DA accomplishes this empowerment by understanding the goals of the developer in terms of roles, activities and software artifacts. It provides streamlined support in reaching those goals through an implementation consisting of intelligent software agents and well-oiled rule machinery.

As a result, the development process itself becomes transparent to the developer. The old days of initial process adoption thresholds, straitjackets and bulkiness are over. Instead, we see a new era of development processes supporting a just-when-needed approach served in the context of the developer and the development challenge at hand.

BIO: Ivar Jacobson is a thought leader in the software world. He has written several influential books about components and component architecture, use cases, modern business engineering, UML and RUP.

References
1. Warmer, J. B., and A. G. Kleppe. The Object Constraint Language: Precise Modeling with UML. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999.
2. Russell, S.J., and P. Norvig. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1995.
3. Gamma, E., et al. Design Patterns. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995.
4. Murch, R., and T. Johnson. Intelligent Software Agents. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1999.
5. http://liinwww.ira.uka.de/bibliography/Ai/software.agents.html

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