2.3Toward Agent Applications and Intermediary Services
Today, information available through the Internet should - at least in theory - be "a mouse-click away" from whoever wants to get it. If you cannot find what you are looking for by casual browsing or by querying a search engine, the right information is bound to be pushed towards you.
As good as this may look in theory, the reality is different. Search engines often produce unsatisfying results, and the information pushed towards you does not (fully) cover what you are looking for.
The time never seemed to be better to (re-)introduce a familiar concept to move things to the next stage of evolution, the concept being that of "(intelligent) software agents"1. Already, more and more 'agent' applications are launched onto the market. However, most of them cannot qualify as real agents. The functionality they offer should better be called agent-like instead2, which is a too bad since the idea of agents really is a concept with much potential;
Many agree that agent - or at least agent-like3 - applications are becoming a necessity to be able to cope with the enormous amount of information that is available through the Internet; the question does no longer seem to be if there will be a considerable usage of agents, but rather when this will happen.
Most of the stand-alone agent applications that are being released are geared at searching the WWW or Usenet based on a group of keywords, concepts, or even entire questions stated in normal sentences.
So, while most agent packages aren't that sophisticated at the moment, they already can relieve the average user of quite a lot of mundane tasks (which usually do not really require that much intelligence, but do require a lot of time or are just plain boring for a human to do);
So, although current agents implementations do not really deserve the label "intelligent", what they will do is make people familiar with agents and with the tasks they are capable of doing, which is an important first step towards increased usage and acceptance of agents by a broad range of users.
Large quantities of software agents combined with electronic intermediary-like programs (such as "Matchmakers" - see [HERM96]) can be used to further enhance and enlarge this new shackle in the information chain. Chapter three will elaborate further on these and other new ways to consume and convey information.
1= For more information on software agents, see [HERM96].
2= The stress is on "like" since they do not posses vital agent characteristics, e.g. the packages do not seem to learn from user input (such as which retrieved documents are looked at first), they show little or no proactivity, and they usually are not autonomous (i.e. the user has to activate them manually).
3= In the rest of this chapter the term "agents" will be used whereas, when looking at the current state of the technique, "agent-like" would be more appropriate. As it would be rather tedious to point out this aspect over and over again, we will refrain to the former term. In chapter three and five, a much closer look will be taken at 'real' agents and agent applications.
4= For instance, when they see that a user repeatedly performs a series of actions which could very well be done with a macro command, the agent will point this out to the user and will assist him - if needed - with the creation of the macro.
5= To answer user questions in the best possible way and assist them in using this suite, these agents rely on usage patterns as Microsoft has acquired them during in-house user test sessions. These tests were used to collect large amounts of statistical data about the way people usually use the software, and about the most common errors and problems (e.g. which topics are looked up the most in the suite's help files). When answering questions, agents uses these data to fine-tune the way in which they answer the question. There is a drawback to this approach for a certain group of users: those which use the suite in a way that strongly deviates from the way average users used in the user tests (e.g. expert or power users). They will find the agents assistance to be a nuisance (e.g. the agents gives them hints they already know) and "patronising".
6= InfoWizard will bill you depending on the stated preferences: it is possible to receive a standard report (which may cost one dollar) or an elaborate report (which will cost more). You can also chose to mark an information search as urgent (and thus more expensive) so that you will receive results within, say, an hour, whereas a normal search (which is less expensive) would yield results after a day.