In-Depth

I, Smartapp

The Big Idea

i, SmartApp

Adaptable Applications

  • Even the most elaborate problem-solving systems can be reduced to a rules repository (or knowledge base) and an inferencing engine.
  • Many of the problem-solving techniques that power adaptive learning and rule-based inferencing systems have gone mainstream.
  • There are a couple of vexing impediments to the development of smart apps in most enterprises—namely, a lack of expertise and time.

Some of the techniques first pioneered by AI researchers (and commercialized by the expert systems pioneers of the 1970s and 1980s) have been used to produce highly adaptive applications or systems. Many expert systems— which can range from the simple (true/false logic) to the complex (true/false logic in tandem with fuzzy logic)—might be called smart, because they're able to make reasonable inferences about the behaviors and preferences of their interactive users and adjust their application presentation or strategic guidance accordingly.

More to the point, the problem-solving capabilities that power the expert systems of today are explicitly portable, because they aren't based on domain-specific expertise. With a few exceptions, even the most elaborate of expert or problem-solving systems can be reduced to two components: a rules repository (or knowledge base) and an inferencing engine.

AI and expert systems concepts and methods aren't just the province of academics or highly specialized commercial ISVs anymore. Many of the problem-solving techniques that power artificial intelligences or expert systems (adaptive learning and rulebased inferencing capabilities) have gone mainstream. Most codejockeys are at least familiar with pathfinding, decision trees and rule-based inferencing, if only as vague holdovers from otherwise long-forgotten CompSci AI seminars.

But some, like Steve Berczuk, a programming consultant and co-author, with Brad Appleton, of Software Configuration Management Patterns, are using these techniques in their ongoing work. "I once worked on an application that used genetic algorithms for scheduling—or rather for optimizing schedules. I'd classify it as intelligent in the sense that it came up with answers comparable—or better—than a person might have," Berczuk explains. "On the other hand, the way that genetic programming works is by trying different things and picking the best options in an efficient way. So it was intelligent, but achieved it by doing lots of small simple things, and correcting course."

Smarter app dev tools

Smart apps will require smarter development tools. And there are a lot of ways in which app dev tools can get smarter. Consider the emergence of domain-specific languages (DSL), which describe a way to encode esoteric domain expertise in (often declarative) programming idioms. Although DSLs haven't yet gone mainstream, some programmers have used them in tandem with other techniques (such as rules) to develop smarter or quasi-intelligent applications. Although there are typically caveats here, too.

"I like using DSLs to implement rules in a concise way, but I've never managed to find a client who would not require something that lay outside the scope of those," says Stefan Schmiedl, a programmer with risk management specialist Approximity.

More to the point, experts say, development tools are going to get smarter. The DSL models championed by Intentional Software, JetBrains and Microsoft will grow in popularity. Model-driven tools will become even more sophisticated and incorporate even more innate "smarts." Over time, Borland, IBM, Microsoft, the Eclipse Foundation and other players will make it easier to build smart apps by incorporating explicit support for rules and other smart programming techniques into their tools. And one consequence of improved app dev smarts might be the diminishment of conventional (imperative) software development.

"A lot of coding is still done in the imperative, one-line-after-another model. We've gone to extremes to make sure that it's easy and efficient to produce software that's essentially one chunk of imperative code after another," says Dan Massey, chief technical architect with Borland Software. "The next step will be more levels of abstraction. There's UML, there's other modeling ideas like Alloy, where—given enough information about your design—for some finite number of nodes, they can tell you whether you're going to violate the constraints you set for them."

This is going to take time. As experts concede, most IT orgs are still developing software the old-fashioned way. So the big tools vendors aren't in any hurry. In the interim, then, small players will have to do much of the heavy lifting.

"Right now, I think [Borland, IBM and Microsoft] are doing the right thing: there's not enough of a market and not enough commonality of tools and approaches. Probably some small company will do something good," suggests Ron Jeffries, a senior consultant with The Cutter Consortium's agile software development and project management advisory service. "A small company looking to get something going might do well to integrate with Eclipse or [Visual Studio], depending on whether they were going after a Java or .NET market."

In addition, Jeffries speculates, there are a lot of unspectacular ways in which app dev tools can be improved, if not made smarter. "There are lots of things where more intelligent IDEs might help. Even in conventional programming, tools like 'lint' and refactoring tools can be of great assistance," he comments, noting that smarter source code diff tools would be a good start.

As for the emergence of programming expert systems that are able to provide meaningful guidance to novice developers, Jeffries isn't holding his breath. "I could imagine tools that would ask 'Are you trying to do X?' and help out. But so far, even the kind of thing that Word can do usually guesses wrong and is hard to configure. In programming, intelligent help is just beginning."

Stephen Swoyer

Others, such as Stefan Schmiedl, a programmer with risk management specialist Approximity, are starting to experiment with smart applications in production environments for the first time. "We actually have [used] adaptive techniques to improve prediction in a prototype currently under heavy development," he confirms.

100 years of progress in 25 years

If Ray Kurzweil is correct, technological singularity is inevitable. And by "inevitable," Kurzweil doesn't just mean the stuff of some distant or oblique future. In his new book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Kurzweil says that what he calls Singularity is only a few decades away.

Singularity is a term Kurzweil and other trans-human futurists use to describe what they believe will happen when the development of artificial (or superhuman) intelligence fuels the exponential acceleration of technological progress and human cultural evolution. There's a lot at stake. In Kurzweil's view, the Singularity will trigger a "profound and disruptive transformation" in human capabilities. In other words, the Singularity will fundamentally alter what it is to be human, both biologically and experientially.

Kurzweil is a technology polymath who's played instrumental roles in the development of optical character recognition and text-to-speech synthesis technologies. He believes Singularity will occur by 2045. More to the point, he argues, we're already in the home stretch. The rate of technological progress is doubling every decade, and Kurzweil expects it will accelerate even more as advances in supercomputing power bring Singularity ever closer.

For Kurzweil, it mostly boils down to an issue of computing horsepower. By 2013, we'll have enough processing power to support functional simulation of the human brain. And by 2025, we'll be able to simulate the brain's neural activity, which will let researchers simulate consciousness in the machine realm.

Key to Kurzweil's argument is that the rate of technological progress is increasing. (He has said that at today's rates, we'll achieve 100 years of progress in just 25 years.) In a certain sense, what Kurzweil really means by "technological progress" is computing power. And the geometric growth of computing horsepower (Moore's Law) isn't simply a function of AI research. There's a profit motive at stake, especially insofar as many of the world's most prominent supercomputer manufacturers also have thriving enterprise server or consumer PC businesses. In other words, businesses and consumers are the driving forces behind technological innovation. What this means is that if the rate of technological progress accelerates-- as we verge ever closer to Singularity--businesses and consumers will be the primary beneficiaries.

And if this happens, it could radically transform what is today called enterprise application development--long before the advent of Kurzweil's Singularity.

At the very least, applications and app dev tools will almost certainly get smarter. With so much processing power at their behest, and with the mainstreaming or trickling down of innovations derived from AI research, robotics, nanotechnology and other domains--it'll amount to a fait accompli of sorts.

But the lesson of today's smart applications is dual-fold: Yes, the pieces are in place and--yes--the technology is in many ways compelling. But the idea of smart applications (to say nothing of machine awareness and super-intelligence) is a disquieting one, at least for most consumers. And until Kurzweil's highly disruptive Singularity utterly explodes the issue, the qualms of potential consumers could act as a brake on the development of truly smart applications.

Stephen Swoyer

Not a trend, yet
Dan Massey, chief technical architect with Borland Software, says smart application development isn't a widespread trend—yet. "I haven't seen that much of it coming in from customers in terms of requirements [for app dev tooling]," he confirms.

"They're doing a lot of imperative coding, and some of them are kind of finding new ways to solve traditional problems, but I've actually had to force rules [inferencing] on people," he says.

There are impediments to the development of smart apps in most enterprises—a lack of expertise and a lack of time. Codejockeys aren't AI researchers, nor do most rank-and-file programmers have much experience with AI or expert systems concepts and methods.

And even if they did, Massey points out, most projects don't give codejockeys enough time to build the infrastructure services—such as a robust inferencing engine—that are needed to enable smart apps in the first place. "The amount of time to do it is more than most developers are given to devote to a project," he points out. "I think a lot of developers could embrace this stuff and go forward with it, but implementing it in the real world, they're not given the time to go do that." That's changing, however.

One emerging model for building potential smart apps is the business rules approach, which to some extent is an offshoot of expert systems research. At a basic level, BRA describes a model in which (often declarative) rules determine outcomes; in their more sophisticated incarnations, business rules management systems (BRMS) use inferencing engines to decide which rules are called for and why. In this respect, organizations can configure their BRMSes to automatically trigger decisions that might otherwise have to be made by a human being—such as a business analyst. A host of vendors market BRMSes, and at least one shrinkwrapped player—Microsoft—has embedded a rules engine in a commodity product (Biztalk Server).

The upshot, says BRA proponent Ron Ross, co-principal of consultancy Business Rules Solutions and executive editor of BRCommunity.com, is there's a market for off-the-shelf BRMSes. And while there is still a host of issues associated with these products—the codification and management of rules, the rapid rate of change (and accompanying evolution of rules) in many organizations, the human resistance to divulge privileged knowledge—they can eliminate a lot of the complex and timeconsuming coding that would otherwise preclude the construction of smart apps in many organizations.

"There have been, probably out of necessity, a lot of do-it-yourselfers in the past, but...the momentum to acquire off-the-shelf capabilities has grown tremendously, and very few people are undertaking to develop their own [BRMSes] these days," said Ross in an interview last year. "At the very least, there are a couple of open-source places that people go so they won't code their inference engine or rules engine from scratch."

The BRAdescribes a very specific paradigm— in this case, using declarative rules designed to appeal to business users—but the concepts on which it's based (rules and inferencing algorithms) have much broader applicability. As a result, even skeptics say it's possible to use a combination of rules (declarative or otherwise) and inferencing algorithms to construct highly adaptive, quasi-intelligent apps.

And given the availability of commercial, off-the-shelf and open-source rules management systems, it's easier than ever. Although many question the wisdom of doing so. "It's definitely possible," concedes Ron Jeffries, a senior consultant with The Cutter Consortium's agile software development and project management advisory service. "I think that for most purposes, an inferencing engine is probably overkill. It's yet another instance of a framework looking for something to do. I'm sure there are exceptions. But I don't run into them."

People unnerved
In a certain sense, it comes down to a fundamental human need, argues Borland's Massey. "People...want some [application intelligence], but they also want it to be deterministic," Massey says. "Consider Bayesian stuff. In theory, you could test for it, you could trend, expecting it to pass or fail. But even though you know it is deterministic somewhere down in the guts of it, it could still seem like magic. That unnerves many people. They want to be the ones who are in control."

Programmer Schmiedl says he has firsthand experience with this phenomenon. His company incorporated adaptive learning capabilities into one of its risk-management software prototypes, designed to increase the predictive capabilities of the prototype, Schmiedl says. At the same time, improved predictive insight does entail a cost of sorts—at least from the perspective of some potential users.

"I demo'ed some of the techniques to a client about a year ago, who replied that he really felt uncomfortable with a system that unpredictable. He valued reproducibility over evolution," Schmiedl explains.

Schmiedl's experience is seconded by Mary Crissey, a marketing director with data mining and statistical analysis powerhouse SAS Institute. To some extent, Crissey concedes, it might be possible to use rules and inferencing algorithms to automate the actionable insights that are unearthed via data mining or information analysis. After all, she says, data mining and information analysis is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, thanks to the ability to process unprecedented amounts of data. But empowering the application to make decisions of this kind isn't a direction in which SAS is going, she says.

"It's more of an alert [model] right now. It's showing you things that you might not have seen because of all of the possible combinations. That's where we are," she explains. But couldn't SAS automate information analysis via rules, inferencing or genetic algorithms, if only on an industry-specific basis?

Certainly, she says, SAS can hardcode trending information to custom-tailor data mining or text mining solutions for specific customer environments. As for automation via quasi-intelligence, Crissey is more reserved. "I would really want a human being [involved]. I think most of our customers expect that [the output of] analysis will be interpreted by a human being. The point is that the machines are not running by themselves. I am strongly in favor of the human participant being a valuable part of the decision-making process."

Unsure smart apps will be smart enough
In many cases, of course, artificial decision- making can be a good thing. E-commerce applications use rules and inferencing to trigger discounts, suggest additional or alternative items, and provide incentives (free shipping, anyone?) based on a customer's online buying patterns. Healthcare, insurance and financial services firms—or any company that's subject to increased regulatory oversight—can use rules to more easily manage changing regulations (rules aren't hardcoded into applications but exist as declarative statements in a repository), ensure compliance with requirements or mitigate exposure to potential litigation. (A rule-based, automated loan approval process is by definition impartial.) As for HAL Corp.'s permitting its Executive Information System to trigger a merger with XYZ Corp., that won't happen.

At some point, suggests Borland's Massey, applications might become smart enough to quell most human concerns. He uses the example of a project management system that's able to customtailor—or custom-market—its guidance based on information it has collected about specific users. Even so, he says, this isn't so much a function of application awareness as of programmer ingenuity.

"There doesn't even have to be any awareness for something like this. [The computer is] going through its rule base and everything it knows, and it looks at the options it's given you and which ones you've picked. Then some algorithms kick in, and it has a library of different ways to show you its data. It goes through different ways of prioritizing them; maybe it starts to learn that you always pick the second option. It learns through trial and error, and from there, you start moving toward teaching it what marketing is," he concludes. "If humans don't want machines thinking for them, maybe you might want to focus on putting in the guts so [the machines] can market their decisions to you."

ILLUSTRATION BY RYAN ETTER

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