Touching hands
3.4The Rebirth of (Intelligent) Software Agents

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In media coverage about topics like the online information market, personalisation of information (sites) and services, and human-computer interaction, the term "software agents" is used a lot. This is not surprisingly, as software agents are a very interesting and versatile design model for (online) applications and services.

The concept of "agency" (as described in section 3.2) is one of the first ways in which the concept of (true) software agents is put to use in daily activities. It is a first step on the long and winding road towards a whole different kind of software (and hardware). Another step is to make a shift in the way we think about applications and using computers;

"The complexity of computer interfaces has accelerated recently. The prevalent view has been that a computer interface is a set of tools, each tool performing one function represented by an icon or menu selection. If we continue to add to the set of tools, we will simply run out of screen space, not to mention user tolerance. We must move from a view of the computer as a crowded toolbox to a view of the computer as an agency - one made up of a group of agents, each with its own capabilities and expertise, yet capable of working together.

[...] The paradigm of thinking of software in terms of self-contained and isolated applications is becoming rapidly obsolete. Computing environments are getting more and more complex, and users are getting tired of the artificial barrier between applications. Users want to work with text, graphics, communications, programming, etc. seamlessly in an integrated environment.

Agents are seen as a way of supplying software that acts as the representative of the user's goals in the complex environment. Agent software can provide the glue between the applications, freeing the user from the complexity of dealing with the seperate application environments."

from "Instructible agents: Software that just keeps getting better"
by H. Lieberman and D. Maulsby

Integration of diverse applications, services and information via 'agentification', agent-mediated interfaces, and the like, are important advantages agents can offer. Others will be key agent characteristics and strong points like: proactivity, being able to perform social actions, autonomy, and being personal.1 An important remark to be made here is that agents in this respect will (and should) distinguish themselves from such techniques as Push (see chapter two) by the fact that it will not be the technologies employed that distinguish them amongst each other (they will all use the same agent design model). Instead, they will differ in the way they can assist all kinds of users, in the functions and tasks on which they focus & in which they specialise (e.g. finding interesting information, making systems more user-friendly to use, and so on).
Users of the electronic market place of today - the Internet, intranets, extranets - are eager to use agent-like search tools and services. They feel it helps them in their struggle to find the needles they are looking for in the online information haystack. Most of them would happily delegate this task to a search agent or comparable application.

"There is nothing, to my mind, inherently creative in the process of gathering information on the Web. It is, as anyone knows who has had to do it, an arduous and boring process to drift though site after site in search of the key nugget of information amongst the piles of digital detritus. By all means let us take that process out of human hands. It is what we do with the information when we get it which is, for me, the determining factor in the debate."
from [IEEE97]

After the time-consuming information gathering process has been completed, humans can continue the work from that point on, using our common-sense and knowledge to extract what is needed from that which has been gathered:

"Agents are not capable of synthesising the information they collect to create fresh insights, and a new understanding neither are they meant to do so. Their role is to assist and enable, not to entrap us in their own process - if they do that then they are simply badly designed."
from [IEEE97]

In short: agents will save their users time and help them solve problems by automatically handling those things they don't want to take care of themselves (i.e. those tasks which are best done by a computer program). This is accomplished by adding "agency" to the applications we use in our daily tasks and to the environments2 we work in. By functioning collectively, agents and agencies will be able to display complex and helpful behaviour, which might even be considered as to be "intelligent".3
This approach differs strongly from the individualistic and non-cooperative nature of current information agent applications. Most of them function like a meta-engine by querying the most popular search engines in parallel and performing some type of post-processing after the results of each individual search engine have been collected. Usually they do not bring their users much closer to solving the information overload, which should not come as a total surprise:

"People have been working on database query systems for decades. Smart people. Very structured data. Narrowly scoped problems. And we got SQL. Maybe some 4GLs and relational databases. Perhaps extensible to distributed databases - even heterogeneous ones.
Now there is the Web with its tons of completely unstructured data, mostly in natural language, distributed randomly. So what is the new breakthrough in query technology for this much more difficult problem? So new 'intelligent agents' are going to extract information from the Web for us? Excuse me?
from [PETR97]

Enabling communication between agents and 'non-human' parties (e.g. other agents, Web servers, computer applications) - something that is not possible with the current agent implementations - looks like the most promising route to circumvent this problem. With this framework in place, tasks like information searches can be distributed over a (large) number of specialised gathering programs (crawlers). In this way the workload is distributed over several entities and several parts of the network. It also becomes easier to co-ordinate the task and prevent double, unnecessary work from being done.
At the moment, this is still a dream; apart from the fact that stand-alone agents (let alone networked ones) haven't matured yet, there is also - as is often the case - a lack of solid, agreed-upon standards; standards for exchanging knowledge and standards (and techniques) for distributed code, to name but two. Technically speaking, there are standards for these purposes already (e.g. KQML, KIF, CORBA), so the problem isn't of a technical nature. It's the market forces (or parties) that haven't reached an agreement on which format, language or technique to use in these areas. However, HTML is an excellent example that such a standard can be reached within a few years.

In chapter five, agents - especially future developments in this area - will be given more attention. In the sections following this one, (supporting) techniques and concepts related to agents, but also to brokering and "agency", will be looked at.

1= For more detailed information about these, and other important agent characteristics, see [HERM96].
2= See chapter four and five for more information about this (i.e. Augemented Reality, Calm Technology and Ubiquitous Computing).
3= The way in which they co-operate is similar to that of an ant colony; each ant has a very specific task which all by itself is of little value. Yet, when all the efforts of each individual ant is combined, an entity arises which seems capable of solving all kinds of problems and able to perform a variety of tasks (i.e. of displaying "intelligent" behaviour).
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Chapter 3 - From Internet to Online Market Place "Desperately Seeking: Helping Hands and Human Touch" -
by Björn Hermans