The Screening Room #7: mTuitive, Mentat, and the Tao of expert systems

The July episode of The Screening Room features Dr. Donald Thomas. He started out as an engineer, then turned to medicine. For many years he's been an emergency room physician and administrator. We connected by way of Peter O'Toole, director of product development at mTuitive, who responded to my invitation to practitioners. mTuitive makes an authoring toolkit for expert systems, and Dr. Thomas is using that toolkit to create an emergency room triage application that helps enforce proper diagnostic procedure, and helps automate medical recordkeeping.

The story this month is partly about the mTuitive toolkit, and partly about the tablet-based application that Dr. Thomas' company, Mentat Systems, is building on top of that toolkit. But mainly it's an exploration of two themes in the development of of expert systems. First, what makes an expert system useful to the people it aims to support? Second, what makes a toolkit for building such a system useful to the developer who aims to provide that support?

I really enjoyed making this episode, and for what it's worth I think it breaks new ground in terms of what technical journalism can (and arguably should) do. Given that mTuitive's toolkit is a .NET-based inferencing engine, there's plenty of raw technology under the covers, but that's not the main theme. Instead we focus on what it is like, from a domain expert's perspective, first to use and then to create a rule-based assistant. What matters most, in both cases, is how well the technology accommodates the expert's familiar ways of thinking and ways of doing.

There is, finally, a larger ambition for this screencast. One reason successful expert systems are scarcer than they ought to be, I suspect, is that experts in many domains aren't able to look over the shoulder of an expert-system developer and find out what it is like to do that kind of work. In medical instruction, as Dr. Thomas points out, the old saying is: "See one, do one, teach one". I hope that this little documentary, and others like it, will help those who could be creating useful applications to see how they're done, and to do them, and maybe even to teach how.

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