Logical spreadsheets

Logical spreadsheets

Summary: Spreadsheets have become essential tools in the last 20 years. Still, they have some limitations. In particular, if they handle mathematical computations, they're not designed to deal with logical formulas. Now, computer scientists at Stanford University have developed a prototype of a logical spreadsheet using logic instead of math to help us with data management in an innovative way. The U.S. Army would like to use the technology to organize troop deployment and training. And Stanford is already using it to schedule classes, events and rooms. The next step will be to integrate this technology on the Web to replace the forms that we routinely fill by "websheets."

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In the last 20 years, spreadsheets have become essential tools. Still, they have some limitations. In particular, if they handle mathematical computations, they're not designed to deal with logical formulas. Now, computer scientists at Stanford University have developed a prototype of a logical spreadsheet using logic instead of math to help us with data management in an innovative way. The U.S. Army would like to use the technology to organize troop deployment and training. And Stanford is already using it to schedule classes, events and rooms. The next step will be to integrate this technology on the Web to replace the forms that we routinely fill by "websheets."

PrediCalc in actionOn the left is an illustration showing a room management system created using such a logical spreadsheet (Credit: Stanford University). This research work has been led since 2001 by Michael Genesereth, an associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University and the current director of the Stanford Logic Group, with Michael Kassoff, doctoral candidate in his group and part of the Logical Spreadsheets project.

Here are two quotes from Genesereth about this project.

"There are many cases where traditional spreadsheets are just not sufficient," says Associate Professor Michael Genesereth, whose group in the Computer Science Department is developing this new method of data management. "Why not have a spreadsheet that looks just like a regular spreadsheet except it has the ability to encode and use logical formulas? That's what you can't do with Excel in any way today."
Genesereth gives the example of trying to use a logical spreadsheet to plan a meal. "You enter the main course, and let the spreadsheet suggest greens and carbohydrates that are gastronomically compatible and satisfy nutritional requirements," he says. "Or you can do it in the other order." Traditional spreadsheets fail in such applications because they are more rigid and cannot represent logical constraints.

Of course, with logical constraints incorrectly handled, situations like a room occupied by two groups might happen. So what to do in this case?

One puzzling issue has been how to preserve and rectify temporary inconsistencies. Kassoff specializes in managing inconsistencies in computational logic. If the system comes across two or more contradictory statements, it will take the following approach: "Allow you to have those problems, alert you to the problems, and allow you to fix them on your own."

Personally, I'm a little bit skeptical. Getting an alert if you have three rooms to manage is one thing, getting thousands if you want to train all the U.S. soldiers is another.

Anyway, the work on PrediCalc, the prototype of such a logical spreadsheet, has been published in the Proceedings of the 31st International Conference on Very Large Databases (VLDB), which was held in Trondheim, Norway, in 2005. Here is a link to this paper, "PrediCalc: A Logical Spreadsheet Management System" (PDF format, 6 pages, 326 KB), from which the above image has been extracted.

As it seems that Michael Kassoff has temporarily left Stanford University, I wonder if these logical spreadsheets will come to market anytime soon to help the hotel management for example. Please drop me a note if you have a clue.

Sources: Chelsea Anne Young, Stanford Report, April 25, 2007; and various websites

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