Expert systems and the digital divide

Expert systems rely on computers to deliver non-expert reasoning, support and guidance to non-expert users. To benefit from this expert knowledge, users must have access to the technology, either directly on their own, or with the help of others.

Expert systems are machines

Expert systems deliver their output through computers. Paper-based “choose your own adventure” versions of expert systems might be possible, but completely impractical to build and maintain. Same with phone trees. We need to rely on computers.

As technology becomes more sophisticated, it can also become simpler to use. Anthropomorphic user interfaces that simulate human interactions will make it easier for less-technology-savvy people to access technology.

But for now, knowledge engineers should expect humans interacting with expert systems to involve human interaction with computers. As a platform, the internet makes the delivery of expert knowledge very accessible, fast and cheap. It’s perfect for expert systems.

The digital divide

The so-called digital divide can refer to people who are unwilling or unable to interact with computers. The digital divide is real, and should be taken seriously. But it shouldn’t stop knowledge engineers from building expert systems to help non-expert users access expert knowledge.

The digital divide is actually relatively narrow. For example, in BC, Canada, 90% or more of the population appears to be using technology. The digital divide is likely to be much narrower than the expert divide.

The resource shortages expert systems aim to address, such as a shortage of available experts or a shortage of money to pay for experts, will often affect much more than 10% of the population. From a utilitarian perspective, having the potential to serve 90% of people with a technology-based expert system is a good starting point.

Proxy expert system users

According to the Oxford Internet Institute, most of the people who don’t user the internet have access via another person – or a proxy user. A proxy user may be a technologically-enabled trusted friend or family member who can serve as the link to the system.

Instead of the user inputting his or her own details or circumstances into the expert system and receiving its output, the proxy user will input the user’s details and relay the system’s output as an intermediary.

Interactions with an expert system through a proxy user may not be as efficient or successful as direct access. But it is another avenue for delivering expert reasoning and guidance to non-experts through a technology-based platform.

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