Intelligent Software agents have been around now since a few years. But even although this technique is still young, it looks promising already. Promising, but also rather vague and a bit obscure to many. This thesis' aim was - and is - to provide an overview of what agents are offering now and are expected to offer in the future. For that purpose, practical examples have been given to indicate what already has been accomplished. A model was outlined which can be used to extend, enhance and amplify the functionality (individual) agents can offer. And trends and developments from past and present have been described, and future developments have been outlined.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn from these trends and developments, is that users will be the ultimate test of agents' success. Users will also (albeit indirectly) drive agents' development; that is something that seems to be certain. What is uncertain is whether users will discover, use and adopt agents all by themselves, or whether they will just start to use them because they are (getting) incorporated into a majority of applications. Users may discover more or less on their own how handy, user-friendly and convenient agents are (or how they are not), just like many users have discovered or are discovering the pros and cons of the Internet and the World Wide Web. But it may just as well go like as in the case of Operating Systems and GUIs, where companies with the biggest market share have more or less imposed the usage of certain systems and software.
From the current situation it cannot be easily deduced which path future developments will follow. There is no massive supply of agents or agent-based applications yet, but what can be seen is that large software and hardware companies, such as IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, are busy studying and developing agents (or agent-like techniques) and applications. Initial user reactions to the first agent applications (not necessarily provided by these large companies) may be called promising: such applications as wizards (although these aren't true agents, but a good predecessor of them) and search-engines (which heavily employ all sorts of search agents, or agent-like variants of these) are eagerly used by users and viewed as (very) positive, sometimes even as a real relief. Also strongly gaining in popularity are personalised newspapers and search agents that continuously scan Usenet articles (sometimes even the entire Internet or the WWW) looking for information that matches certain keywords or topics. [1]
And this only seems to be the beginning, as the agent-technique can be used in many more ways. The growing popularity of the Internet, but also the problems many people encounter when searching for or when offering information or services on it, will only increase the possible number of applications or application areas: the Internet is an ideal environment for agents as they are (or can be) well adapted to its uncertainty, and are better [2]  at dealing with the Internet's complexity and extensiveness. In the future, agents should also be able to relief humans of many other tasks, both mundane as well as more complicated ones (i.e. which require more "intelligence").

To get to this stage, however, some important obstacles need to be tackled first. For example: one of the interesting and powerful aspects of agents will be their ability to communicate with other agents, other applications and - of course - with humans. To do this, good and powerful interfaces and communication languages (i.e. protocols) have to be developed. Standards could be of great help here, but it also takes quite some time (at least some years) before these are drawn up. As much as they will help speed up developments from that moment on, the lack of them is likely to slow down developments up till then.
Other important issues that have not, or only partially been addressed and tackled, are such things as security, (user) privacy, means to accomplish real intelligent agent behaviour, and many ethical and juridical issues.

My expectations are that, within foreseeable time (i.e. within five years), enough of these issues will have been sufficiently dealt with. [3]  The situation for agents can, in a way, be compared to that in the area of Artificial Intelligence in general: critics have been, and still are saying that it is unclear what AI exactly is, what its aims are, and that AI researchers are not able to come up with many concrete techniques or practical (usually meaning: profitable) applications. These critics seem to pass over the fact that, although there may be a number of concepts that still are rather vague or that lack a clear definition, and that there are a lot of pieces missing in its puzzle, AI has managed to make impressive achievements: concepts and techniques like fuzzy logic and neural networks have been used and incorporated into many applications.
At this moment, agents seem to have become the critics' latest "moving target". Agents are being incorporated into future doom scenarios, where they are used (for instance by "Big Brother") to spy on Internet users, and where they turn people into solitary creatures, that live their life inside their own little virtual reality. Agents (in their view) are the latest hype, and - as a technique - have not much to offer.
As was said at the beginning: the agent-technique is still very young. It 'growing up' takes time, and it will take a lot of trial and error, and a lot of experimenting to make it mature. This is exactly the stage where we are at now, so you can't expect agents to already be advanced and (nearly) perfect. This thesis has described just how advanced and "perfect" agents are at this moment, and how they are expected to mature in the future. Developments may not have come "there" at this moment, but they certainly have made enough progress to make them more than just a hype.

[1] Examples of such services are the Sift service of Stanford University and IBM's InfoSage.
[2] better than many conventional programs.
[3] which does not mean that they have been completely solved, but to such a degree that they do not interfere (much) with further developments.

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