On the basis of our site visits, plus additional data gathered by Nikkei AI, we can draw a number of conclusions about the state-of-the-art of expert system applications within the business sector in Japan.
The technology of expert systems has now been mastered by the Japanese. Since the early 1980s, when they first entered this field, they have completely caught up with the United States. They can apply the technology to any problem within the state of the art. Their best applications are equal to the best elsewhere in the world. Their use of the technology is not niched, but is widespread across many business categories.
Japanese computer manufacturers (JCMs) play a dominant role in the technology and business of expert systems. The JCMs have mastered and absorbed expert system technology as a core competence. They tend to use systems engineers rather than knowledge engineers to build systems. Consequently, integration with conventional information technology poses no special problem for them, and is handled routinely and smoothly, without friction. These large computer companies also build many application systems for their customers; small firms play only a minor role in applications building, in contrast with the United States.
Within the computer manufacturing companies, there is a close coupling between activities in the research laboratories, the system development groups, and the sales departments. The development and sales groups work closely together to develop custom systems for clients. The results are fed back to the research lab to provide requirements for the next generation of ES tools.
Viewed as a technology (rather than as a business), the field of expert systems is doing well in Japan, as it is in the U.S. As in the U.S., the experimentation phase is over, and the phase of mature applications is in progress. Following a normal learning curve, the ratio of successful deployments of expert systems to projects initiated has risen sharply, from about 5 percent in the early years to about 75 percent in recent years. Japanese appliers of the technology make eclectic use of AI techniques. Most of these techniques originated in the U.S. or Europe. As in the U.S., expert systems technology is often just a component of a bigger system -- expert systems are just another tool in the software toolkit. The Japanese do not attempt to analyze payoff at the component level, but look at the system level. Thus they do not measure the return on investment of these embedded expert systems. However, there are many applications in which the expert system is the main technology.
Viewed as a business, the expert systems field in Japan did not take off in any exceptional way compared to the U.S. or Europe. Although the overall level of activity is significant and important, there is no evidence of exponential growth. Components of the business consist of expert system tools, consulting, and packaged knowledge systems. Hitachi's expert system business seems the most viable. Other major players, such as Fujitsu and CSK, have had limited business success.
With respect to ES tools, Japanese tools are similar in sophistication to those sold and used in the U.S. Techniques and methodology developed in the U.S. have been, and continue to be, made into products quickly.
Japan has more experience than the U.S. in applications of KBS technology to heavy industry, particularly the steel and construction industries.
Aside from a few exceptions, the Japanese and U.S. ES tool markets follow similar trends: vertical, problem-specific tools; a move towards open systems and workstations; and an emphasis on integration of ESs with other computational techniques.
The number of fielded applications in Japan is somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000, including PC-based applications. The number of U.S. applications is probably several times that of Japan.
Fuzzy control systems (not counted in the above tally) have had a big impact in consumer products (e.g., camcorders, automobile transmissions and cruise controls, television, air conditioners, and dozens of others).
The JTEC panel saw continued strong efforts by Japanese computer companies and industry-specific companies (e.g., Nippon Steel) to advance their KBS technology and business. This situation contrasts with that in the U.S., where we see a declining investment in knowledge-based systems technology: lack of venture capital, downsizing of computer company efforts, few new product announcements. It is a familiar story, and one for concern, as this trend may lead to Japanese superiority in this area relatively soon.