Logica Cambridge Ltd, the research and development arm of what it dutifully describes as the largest independent software house in the UK, threw open its doors last week to provide a behind-the screens glimpse of some 18 months of frenetic activity. In four short years, the division has managed to consolidate its reputation for pioneering […]
Logica Cambridge Ltd, the research and development arm of what it dutifully describes as the largest independent software house in the UK, threw open its doors last week to provide a behind-the screens glimpse of some 18 months of frenetic activity. In four short years, the division has managed to consolidate its reputation for pioneering new technologies, which are then adopted and dispersed as techniques throughout the parent empire. A further measure of the company’s success can be gleaned from the degree to which it has consistently managed to drum up external funding. Currently, the UKP1m subsidy which the company gets from Logica Plc represents just one third of its annual budget; projects amounting to the remaining two thirds are generated by Alvey or European Community-backed Esprit sponsorship, or fully funded from outside by individual customers. Sporadic attempts to pigeon-hole the company’s activities have traditionally been greeted as inappropriate; many, including chairman Brian Oakley, prefer instead to celebrate the division’s multi-disciplinary approach and apparent ability to interweave and merge activities. Recent development work does, however, appear to centre upon three specific areas; knowledge-based systems; human-computer interaction or HCI; and speech and language. Knowledge-based systems Integral is the term coined by manager Peter Jenkins to describe the contribution which the Knowledge-Based Systems division makes to Logica’s work. Over the course of the past four years, argues Jenkins, the market has become increasingly mature and specialised: by the mid-1990s, he expects the routine integration and exploitation of knowledge-based elements in a significant proportion of corporate systems. The division believes its particular strengths lie in two distinct areas; the huge emphasis which it places upon quality control and rule base validation, and the development and refining of its proprietary kernel concept. In Logica terms, a knowledge-based kernel is re-usable knowledge-based software, developed for a range of generic and vertical application groups. Jenkins describes it as a product that slots neatly between his perceived polar extremes – low-end shells, which, as little more than limited pieces of research software, when they are applied somewhat randomly to numerous applications, tend not to meet user expectations; or the kind of expensive tool kits particularly well received in the US, which do match development expectations, but carry a lot of dead software weight when deployed. Past projects have furnished the division with a number of different kernels, which span a range of applications. The company has just signed contract – value undisclosed – with ICI Plc for a Product Formulation Expert System or PFES, which is designed to speed up the selection of product ingredients, and the subsequent testing, analysis and adjustment formulation procedures. It is also carrying out a feasibility study on behalf of the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency, with a view to developing a software techniques training tool for system developers, and expects to complete an Alvey-ICL-Department of Health & Social Security-backed legislative decision support project next March. Meanwhile the division is awaiting the outcome of a Training Association evaluation of a knowledge-based counselling system for small business start-ups, Basics, which aims to test the viability of business propositions and automatically generates draft business plans. Projects of the Basics kind clearly work in synergistic association with the human-computer interface areas of Logica activity. This division takes its direction from the somewhat controversial premise that computer systems are not very easy to use, a state of affairs which can often result, it argues, in high error rates and low user productivity, a high turnover of employees, enormous training costs, and the need to find and keep specialised, staff. Short-term, the division aims to spread the Humnan-Computer Interface methodology gospel th
roughout the company; loftier long-term plans include the development of intelligent front ends, Help systems and training systems. Embryonic manifestations of these concerns can already be found in the Human-Computer team’s existing range of interfaces, which incorporate Help facilities, enable the computer to talk appropriately to the user, and – impressively – interface with a training system and provide feedback by responding and adapting to a user’s learning curve and fatigue level. Emboss, the name given to an intelligent Help system developed within the confines of the Training Association’s AI Applications to Learning initiative, and shortly tipped to become the object of a sizeable contract with a leading accountancy firm, allows the user to switch between a standard business software package and a Logica developed Help system. The system builds up a user profile, based on the frequency of the help requests, and gradually withdraws support as confidence and understanding grow. At the same time, however, the system models the user’s forgetting process, and decreases belief in the user’s knowledge over a period of time. A similar process will be used for the one-year project recently awarded by the Civil Aviation Authority, for the development of a training system for air traffic control officer cadets. Biometrics The announcement earlier this month that Logica Cambridge had been chosen to lead the Esprit II Sundial speech project (CI No 1,009) was seen as a fitting tribute to the company’s speech and language division, long considered the most oustanding of its kind in the country. Esprit projects aside, the speech team has been laying the foundations for work in the oral dialogue field the name used to describe the employment of speech recognition techniques over a limited domain – and is busy fine-tuning a telephone-based voice identification system with enormous security applications potential. The system uses a number of individual voice characteristics as biometrics or identifiers traditional biometrics being finger prints or signatures – and stores them against a user password. Once the passwords have been entered, users are asked to articulate three words, specially chosen to highlight the chosen characteristics without reflecting any physiological changes colds or sore throats for example. The system can then carry out a speech validation, and either admit or throw out the user. Although still at the optimisation stage, the system is being hailed as an alternative to signature validations on Smart Cards or standard cheque cards, and will undoubtedly be adapted for a number of Logica’s turnkey security systems.