A membership function (MF) is a curve that defines how each point in the input space is mapped to a membership value (or degree of membership) between 0 and 1. The input space is sometimes referred to as the universe of discourse, a fancy name for a simple concept.
One of the most commonly used examples of a fuzzy set is the set of tall people. In this case the universe of discourse is all potential heights, say from 3 feet to 9 feet, and the word “tall” would correspond to a curve that defines the degree to which any person is tall. If the set of tall people is given the well-defined (crisp) boundary of a classical set, we might say all people taller than 6 feet are officially considered tall. But such a distinction is clearly absurd. It may make sense to consider the set of all real numbers greater than 6 because numbers belong on an abstract plane, but when we want to talk about real people, it is unreasonable to call one person short and another one tall when they differ in height by the width of a hair.
But if the kind of distinction shown above is unworkable, then what is the right way to define the set of tall people? Much as with our plot of weekend days, the figure following shows a smoothly varying curve that passes from not-tall to tall. The output-axis is a number known as the membership value between 0 and 1. The curve is known as a membership function and is often given the designation of µ. This curve defines the transition from not tall to tall. Both people are tall to some degree, but one is significantly less tall than the other.
Subjective interpretations and appropriate units are built right into fuzzy sets. If I say “She’s tall,” the membership function “tall” should already take into account whether I’m referring to a six-year-old or a grown woman. Similarly, the units are included in the curve. Certainly it makes no sense to say “Is she tall in inches or in meters?”