Structured Evidential Argumentation System


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"The system encourages objective assessment and reporting by project leaders, while providing upper management with a clear and concise report that pinpoints aspects of projects in the company's portfolio."

- Nordic Advanced Information Technology Magazine, 1994

The History of SEAS

Our work on "Structured Argumentation" originated with an effort that developed the SRI Early Alert System (sometimes referred to as SEAS), a project reporting system for identifying problems early in a project while there is still time to take effective corrective action. This work continued with the development of the Structured Evidential Argumentation System (SEAS), a generalization of our earlier efforts to support intelligence analysts addressing national security problems. Both of these efforts are briefly described below. Development and application of SEAS continues under the sponsorship of multiple government and commercial organizations, as well as SRI International.

SEAS: Structured Evidential Argumentation System

Under efforts sponsored by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), beginning with Project Genoa, SRI International developed the Structured Evidential Argumentation System (SEAS) to aid intelligence analysts in predicting potential crises (1998-2004). It is implemented as a web server that supports the construction and exploitation of a corporate memory filled with analytic products and methods, indexed by the situations to which they apply. Objects from this corporate memory are viewed and edited through the use of a standard browser client, with the SEAS server producing ephemeral HTML based upon the contents of the SEAS knowledge base that constitutes corporate memory.

The foundation of this corporate memory is an ontology of arguments and situations that includes three main types of formal objects: argument templates, arguments, and situation descriptors. Roughly speaking, an argument template records an analytic method as a hierarchically structured set of interrelated questions, an argument instantiates an argument template by answering the questions posed relative to a specific situation in the world, and situation descriptors characterize the type of situations for which the argument templates were designed and the specific situations that arguments address.

SEAS emphasizes the use of simple and regular inference structures as the foundation of its argument templates, making the reasoning easy to follow and making it possible for analysts to independently author new templates. When authoring an argument template, the analyst first selects an inference structure and then tailors the questions and multiple-choice answers to fit. Argument templates include discovery tools, recommended methods of acquiring information pertaining to the questions posed by the template. An analyst wanting to record an argument, selects an appropriate template given the situation, uses the discovery tools to retrieve potentially relevant information, selects that information to retain as part of the argument and records its relevance to the questions at hand, answers the multiple-choice questions by selecting those answers that bound what is known, and records the rationale for the answers selected.

This structured argumentation methodology encourages a careful analysis by reminding the analyst of the full spectrum of indicators to be considered, eases argument comprehension by allowing the analyst to "drill down" along the component lines of reasoning to discover the basis and rationale of others' arguments, and invites and facilitates argument comparison by framing arguments within common structures.

SRI Early Alert System

SRI's business consulting practice developed an early alert methodology based upon the application of a standard set of questions, to periodically assess key aspects of both internal and external situations, as a means of comparing and contrasting their impact on a company's business strategy. To provide semiautomated application of this methodology, SRI developed an application of its Gister evidential reasoning technology, called the SRI Early Alert System (and sometimes referred to as SEAS), under the sponsorship of Statoil (1989-1990).

The SRI Early Alert System supports a hierarchy of questions and answers with a hierarchy of screen images. The user navigates up/down/across this hierarchy by clicking on mouse-sensitive regions on the screens. This supports a style of interactive navigation through the information that has been more recently popularized in the World Wide Web (although SRI Early Alert System predates the WWW). At the top of this hierarchy, the screen displays the key questions to be asked and answered. The answers to these yes/no questions are portrayed along side each question as a sequence of lights ranging from green to yellow to red (the exact number of lights varied with the applications). A green light corresponds to a favorable response to a question, while a yellow corresponds to a less favorable response and a red to an unfavorable response. If one or more of a question's lights are on, it indicates that something is known about its answer: if one light is on, that is the answer; if multiple lights are on, it is indicating that the answer is one of those that is lit, but there is not enough information at present to give a definitive answer; by convention, if all answers remain possible given current information, no lights are lit. The advantage of this display is that the answers to all of the key questions can be very quickly scanned to understand the overall characteristic of the assessment and to reveal which of the questions require additional attention.

By selecting any of these questions/answers for a more detailed examination, a screen image appears that repeats the selected question/answer at the top and displays the supporting questions/answers for this question, just below it. It is the answers to these supporting questions in the hierarchy that are driving the answer to the selected focus question. Again, this display allows the user to quickly see how the answer to the focus question is derived from the answers to its supporting questions. Selecting any of these supporting questions/answers will reveal a similar screen image for its supporting questions, or will reveal a screen where that question is directly answered. In the latter case, the screen repeats the question and provides a list of possible answers. By clicking on one or more of these, the user enters an answer for the question. Other fields on the screen record the date/time, the name of the user making the entry, and any reference material on which the answer is based. Collectively this provides a record of the information that supports the answer to the question.

Utilizing SRI Early Alert System, the user freely moves up/down/across the argument, i.e., the question/answer hierarchy. When the user answers previously unanswered questions, or changes the answers to others, the answers to questions higher in the hierarchy are automatically updated to reflect the new information. The SRI Early Alert System is an application of SRI's evidential reasoning system, Gister-CL; this update is performed by that system.


SEAS, High SEAS, Structured Evidential Argumentation System, and SRI Early Alert System, are trademarks of SRI International.
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