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Research: Expert Systems

Today, many people have simple robots in their homes that can vacuum their carpets. There are also robot security guards patrolling buildings at night, robot guides, and robot factory workers. In 2006, it was estimated that there were 950,000 industrial robots and 3,540,000 service robots working in homes and buildings. But in the coming decades, the field of robotics may blossom in several directions. But these robots won’t look like the ones of science fiction.

The greatest impact may be felt in what are called expert systems, software programs that have encoded in them the wisdom and experience of a human being… [O]ne day, we may talk to the internet on our wall screens and converse with the friendly face of a robodoc or robolawyer. (Physics of the Future by Michiu Kaku p.77)

This was written in 2011 and is already well on the way to realisation. When I was working in the IT Department of Local Government, originally each department that dealt with the public had its own Enquiry Desk. This involved members of the public having to negotiate their way through the different floors and corridors of the building to find the appropriate Enquiry Desk.

The Council wanted to streamline their operations and also make things easier for the public by having one set of Enquiry Desks near the entrance who would deal with every type of query. This was great for the public and great for releasing floor space throughout the building, but how could they have staff who could answer questions about everything?

Expert System diagram

The answer was expert systems. Not quite robots, but the IT Department created a suite of screens to guide the staff through all the questions they needed to ask and provide some standard answers to the most frequently asked questions. These were written by department experts. In this way, most queries could be easily dealt with and officers were on call should it get too complicated. Also, the staff learned as they used the system and were often able to help on their own.

NHS Direct Wales

You will have met the same sort of thing if you dial NHS Direct in the UK. The person who answers your call will be a trained medical professional but won’t be skilled in all types of medicine. They will take you through basic questions which lead you through a flowchart to the right advice, or gather the needed information for someone to call you back.


Many robot systems work in the same way, to a set of pre-written rules and options to guide them to the right answer or actions. Robodoc already exists and can help to diagnose patients before they see the doctor. Alexa and Siri obey carefully worded commands to operate networked items in your house, search the internet, or play music. This is only the start.

Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, and book two Alien Secrets, are out now. Follow her at