Undercover Agents

BOSTON (06/05/2000) - You know that beady-eyed paper clip that stares at you from your Windows 98 applications? It's an intelligent software agent. It's a cool one, too - though most people will never know that, because they switch the creepy thing off as soon as they can.

Perhaps because of their roots in artificial intelligence - a field that overpromised itself into exile - agents were once viewed as a technology always set to explode ... next year.

But they have exploded, albeit quietly. There are plenty of software agents in use today. They're in help systems, many search engines and comparison-shopping tools. But you ain't seen nothin' yet.

During the next few years, as technologies mature and agents radically increase their value by communicating with one another, they will significantly affect your company's business processes. Training, decision support and knowledge sharing will be affected, but experts see procurement as the killer application of business-to-business agents.

Intelligent software agents, also known as "bots" (short for "knowledge robots"), are programs that autonomously help users accomplish certain tasks.

Agents, which can be written in a variety of programming languages, feature triggers that allow them to execute without human intervention. Most agents also feature adaptive learning of users' tendencies and preferences and offer personalization based on what they learn about users.

One goal of software agent developers is to fulfill the age-old promise that machines will perform tasks that humans don't want to do. Another is to delegate to machines tasks at which they are vastly superior to humans, such as comparing the price, quality, availability and shipping costs of items.

J.D. Knode, editor of the Web site BotKnowledge.com and a graduate student at the University of Baltimore, says agents can automatically perform intelligent searches, answer questions, tell you when an event occurs, individualize news delivery, tutor and, of course, comparison-shop.

Facilitating Change

As neural networks and other linchpin artificial intelligence disciplines improve, and as evolving standards let agents hop from system to system and communicate with one another, the value of bots may increase geometrically. An IBM Corp. Research Web page sums up the outlook: "We envision the Internet some years hence as a seething milieu in which billions of economically motivated software agents find and process information. ... Agents will naturally evolve from facilitators into decision-makers."

E-commerce is a key focus of agent activity. Take comparison-shopping bots such as mySimon Inc.'s and extend their premise to corporate purchasing and procurement, and you've got what Alexander Linden, a senior analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut, calls "the hot issue" for agents.

Web-based exchanges such as the one recently formed by the Big Three automakers are enabled by agent technology. "I can compare prices, quality and availability when I'm buying textbooks. If I'm GM, why not do the same thing when I'm buying 700 million tons of steel?" Knode says.

Linden also points to financial arbitrage as a logical application for agents.

Tracking currency changes, seizing on a stock's "float," computing minute advantages and executing deals within fractions of a second are jobs best performed using computer horsepower.

Of course, not every application needs to earn or save billions. Pattie Maes, an associate professor at the MIT Media Laboratory, has long been at the forefront of agent development. As early as 1994, in a speech she gave at the Doors of Perception 2 Conference, Maes described the need for software agents.

"I'm convinced that we need [software agents], because the digital world is too overwhelming for people to deal with, no matter how good the interfaces we design," she said. "There is just too much information."

Much remains to be done before software agents realize their potential. If agents are to collaborate and form a vast network of superprocurers, standards must take hold to address communication and security issues. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on developing the Knowledge Query and Manipulation Language, which will double as a message format and a message-handling protocol.

As agent-based commerce takes hold, ethical and legal issues are sure to arise, because "so many new business models are based on crawlers, agents and so on," says Linden.

Agents are sure to revolutionize industrial espionage, too. If you're not already paranoid about guarding your corporate data, check out Chicago-based Spyonit.com Inc.'s Web site. Its free tool sends bots out to gather information. It's easy to imagine using it to issue commands such as "Beep me when my competitor's org chart changes."

If nothing else, agents serve as another reminder to brush up on security procedures.

Ulfelder is a freelance writer in Southboro, Massachusetts. Contact him at ulfelder@earthlink.net.

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