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5.4Software Agents & UC/CT: Different Focus, Different Users

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Software agents and UC/CT have very different ways of working, and at some points seem to be opposites.

Ubiquitous Computing and Calm Technology are meant to make the computer and all of its functionality (such as using the online market place) disappear into our surroundings. People should be as little conscious as possible of the fact that they are in fact using a computer to get a certain task done. With ubiquitous computing (and calm technology) there is not really a single unit with which people interface: rather, there are many distributed interfaces (devices) which people use, and these devices - usually - adapt themselves to the person using them, as well as the time and place (i.e. circumstances) in which they are used. People not familiar with computers and/or with the services to which the devices connect them, will feel (very) comfortable working in this way and with these kind of devices as they do not need to enter difficult commands or need to master some kind of system or technique to use them. Yet, as ‘user-friendly’ as ubiquitous computing and the like may be, they also require a whole new way of looking at computers, appliances, and online services that not all people will be able to adopt instantaneously.

Agents, on the other hand, operate mostly in the virtual world, and they are an explicit part of people's (working) environment. Ideally, there will be a single interface for every individual person (being his or her personal agent) with which he or she interacts and communicates. This also means people are very much aware of the existence of agents (at least as much as they would be aware of the existence of a human assistant). At least in the forthcoming years, agents will have a much harder time detecting the context of a user’s (implicit) requests and wishes compared to ubiquitous devices (as these devices are usually employed in a context that is more or less the same every time it is used: the application of the device is the context1). People familiar with computers and/or with the services to which it connects them (e.g. the Internet), will probably feel more comfortable working with an agent, as this resembles very much the way of working that they are used to (i.e. actively stating requests). They probably will not mind if they have to learn some extra techniques to use agents to their full potential, as they judge it will be well worth the effort. Using agents is a quite natural extension of how people currently work with computer hardware and software: they do not require a radical change in people's working methods.

Does this mean that the application areas of both concepts are two worlds apart? In some areas one will be the more prominent than the other, e.g. a ubiquitous device might use agents to fulfil its task, but the user will probably not be aware of that. This latter example also could be a good example of how they will complement each other: ubiquitous computing, calm technology and augmented realities can all be used to bridge the gap between the user and (using) the computer, whereas agents can be used to bridge the gap between using the computer and using applications, using online services, and performing all kinds of other tasks.

A good - albeit technically very modest - example of how agent-like functionality can be combined with calm technology-like functionality, is the Remembrance Agent in the next section.

1= The context is important when an agent gets ambiguous, incomplete, and possibly conflicting messages or tasks from a user; the context of such request can be of great aid to find out what it is a user means.
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Chapter 5 - Tomorrow's Internet: an Ubiquitous and Agent-serviced Online Market Place...? "Desperately Seeking: Helping Hands and Human Touch" -
by Björn Hermans