"Agent-enablement will become a significant programming paradigm, ranking greater in importance than client/server or object orientation. The big difference will lie in increased user focus. Successful implementors will view their products in the context of personal aids, such as assistant, guide, wizard."
from [JANC95]


Users are one of the most - if not the most - influential party involved in the developments around agents. However, it may be expected that most users will adopt a rather passive attitude with regard to agents: research and past experiences with other technologies have learned us that substantial user demand of new technologies is always lagging a few years behind the availability of it.
So users may be called "passive" in a sense that they will only gradually start to use applications that employ the agent-technique. Moreover, they will not do this because of the fact that these applications use the agent technique, but simply because they find these application more efficient, convenient, faster, more user-friendly, etcetera. They may even find them "smarter", even though they have never heard of such things as intelligent software agents.
Not until applications using agents are sweeping the market and users are more familiar with the concept of agents, will the role of users become more active in the sense that they knowingly favour agent-enabled applications over applications that do not use the agent-technique.


"Software is too hard to use for the majority of people. Until computers become a more natural medium for people... something they can interact with in a more social way, the vast majority of features and technologies will be inaccessible and not widely used. [Our] industry has historically proven more finesse at delivering difficult and challenging technologies, than it has providing these in an approachable way."
a Delphi Process respondent in [JANC95]

In general, "ease of use" (or the lack of it) will be one of the most important issue in the agent-user area. If users do not feel comfortable working with agents, if they find them insecure or unreliable, or if they have to deal with hardware or software problems, agents will never be able to enter the mainstream.
The issue of ease of use can be split up into a number of important sub issues:

The User Interface (broadly speaking)
The interface between the user and agents (i.e. agent applications) is a very important factor for success. Future agent user interfaces will have to bridge two gaps: the first is the gap between the user and the computer (in general) and the second is the gap between the computer user and agents:

"the end user first must feel comfortable with computers in general before attempting to get value from an agent-enabled application."
a remark made by a respondent in [JANC95]

Special interface agents will have to be used to ensure that computer novices, or even users who have never worked with a computer at all, will be able to operate it and feel comfortable doing so:

"People don't understand what a computer is, and you ask them to work with a state of the art tool. First we must make them feel comfortable with computers."
a remark made by a respondent in [JANC95]

A good agent/computer user interface will have to look friendly to the novice user. There are strong debates over the question whether or not anthropomorphic interfaces (i.e. interfaces who use techniques such as animated characters) are a good way of achieving this goal. Some say people like to treat computers as if they were humans, so providing an interface which gives a computer a more human appearance would fit perfectly to this attitude. Others think users may get fed up by anthropomorphic interfaces (e.g. find them too round-about, or too childish), or they may be disappointed by the level of intelligence (i.e. by the perceived limitations) of such interfaces. Therefore, user interfaces will not only have to look good (e.g. more "human"), but they will also need to be "intelligent". Intelligence in this context relates to such abilities as being able to understand commands given in normal (i.e. natural) language (preferably with the additional ability to understand ambiguous sentences) or the ability to take the context into consideration in which commands are given and by whom this is done. [1]


Security / Reliability

"Users must be comfortable trusting their intelligent agents. It is essential that people feel in control of their lives and surroundings. They must be comfortable with the actions performed for them by autonomous agents, in part through a feeling of understanding, and in part through confidence in the systems. Furthermore, people expect their safety and security to be guaranteed by intelligent agents."
from "Intelligent Agents: a Technology and Business Applications analysis"

The security and reliability (i.e. predictability) will be an important issue for many users. The rise of multi-agent systems complicates things even further, as it becomes very hard to keep a good overview on a situation where several layers of agents and all types of agents are involved: how can one be sure that nothing is lost, changed or treated wrong, in a system where multiple kinds of agents need to work together to fulfil a request?

One possibility to offer a secure agent system is to use one common language, such as Telescript. But as has been pointed out in section 6.2.1, it is very unlikely that all agents will use the same language.
Another complicating factor is the fact that agents are programmed a-synchronously; agents are built at different moments in time, so each agent will have its own agenda and skills, which may not be easily compatible with (those of) other agents.

In [JANC95] respondents were asked when agents will be relied on for complete personal information security (by users) [2]. The given answers (i.e. opinions) varied strongly.
Some thought that complete security could never be accomplished. New and better security techniques will be invented, but so are new "other" techniques which give rise to new security problems.
Others thought it would be possible within ten to twenty-five years. Additional remarks made by these respondents were the expectation that it will take quite some time before people really have trust in agents. But, on the other hand people (i.e. users) will have to trust agent security as "more and more information is imposed on us, we will not be able to manage all this by ourselves. We need to define templates and rules for different events, etc., and therefore pass the responsibility at least partially to an agent."
To one of the respondents agent security was sort of a non-issue, as he found that it is something an agent should not be concerned with in the same way an agent should not be concerned about the operating system a user is using: "If the question is "When will agents make my personal data secure?" my answer would be never - the technology would be misapplied, since secure communications technology covers this issue fairly completely now, and is constantly being improved with public encryption, authentication services."


Hardware Issues
The current PC operating system environment, as used by many users, makes it difficult-to- impossible to capture the type of information needed to measure a user's actions. Without these signals, user interface agents cannot determine when to intervene. A related problem is the non-standard environment. Every PC can be just a little bit different, making standard interface development a challenge.



"Ease of use" is tightly coupled to another factor in user acceptation and adoption of agents: the availability of agent applications that the user finds useful, convenient, etcetera. User adoption of agents will not be driven by the agent technique's (cap)abilities, but by agent applications:

"The catalyst will be a few good agent applications controlling data that is important to users. The bar needs to be set and then customers will demand agents."
respondent reaction, taken from [JANC95]


Generally seen, the following major user agent applications (related to user information needs) can be distinguished, each of which have been realised already, or can be realised within a few years [3] :
Personal assistants: here the agent system treats each user as an individual. As the system gets more and more experience, it will look more and more like a personal assistant.
Examples of such personal assistants are Open Sesame! and Microsoft's Bob;
Information management: this relates to search engine improvements. One improvement would be the ability to go beyond the regular search environment. Another improvement would have an agent pre-determine which data sources it would check. A further improvement is the ability to do searches based on context rather than a search based on keywords, and to select data sources based on this context. An example of such an agent is Oracle's ConText which is a natural language processing technology capable of compressing and summarising documents. The way data is compressed may depend on personal taste: the type of data, day of the week, etc. Intelligence may be required to determine how to present such data;
Personal newspaper: a daily personal newspaper is presented to a user. This newspaper includes headlines and summaries of articles for maximum ease of use. The application will scan which information the user reads first, and adjust future presentations to match this reading pattern.
Examples of personal newspapers that are currently being offered are those of The Wall Street Journal and The Times;
Personal research assistant: here there is an agent (the assistant) which has knowledge of a user's preferences, as well as his or her standing requests for information on certain topics. It periodically scans appropriate databases, and delivers summaries on a scheduled or on-request basis. Eventually, the assistant will both understand - and communicate using - natural language.

[1] i.e. what one person means to say may be different from what another person means to say, even though they both use identical words. Furthermore, a person may wish a different outcome over time, even though the same expression is used.
A related challenge is in setting appropriate thresholds to trigger intervention: novice users will be glad when an agent helps him without an explicit call for help, whereas a power user will soon get very annoyed when he is constantly being "helped" (i.e. interrupted) by agent(s). (See [JANC95] for more detailed information.)

[2] See Appendix III of this report, page A3-33.
[3] See [JANC95].

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"Intelligent Software Agents on the Internet" - by Björn Hermans