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MIT Media Lab Presents the Interface Agents Symposium: Intelligent Agents in Your Computer?

Magazine article Information Today

MIT Media Lab Presents the Interface Agents Symposium: Intelligent Agents in Your Computer?

Article excerpt

The MIT Media Lab is well known for its forward-looking approach to new media technologies. These are the people that brought us the "data glove" and other wearable electronic devices; used holograms to create three dimensional images; and have introduced Boston-area elementary students to LOGO and LEGO allowing them to create and program their own robots. Another first was presented by the Media Lab on October 20, 1992, "The world's first symposium called to address the subject of Interface Agents." If this description doesn't intrigue you, perhaps the invitation would; a glossy invitation to sponsors and friends of the Media Laboratory with a photograph of a white-gloved butler on the front. The invitation defined the term Interface Agents:

Interface Agents are semi-autonomous computer programs that intelligently assist "their" user with computer applications. Like an experienced English butler, agents become increasingly and intimately aware of the needs and preferences of the person they work for; they offer advice, make suggestions, filter queries, and automate tasks.

As early as 1972 the MIT Media Lab's director, Nicholas Negroponte, was describing this type of intelligent agent and likening it to an English butler. Twenty years later the concept was the basis of a full day symposium on the topic which included some renowed speakers and a touch of dissent.

The symposium was a rather flashy affair for an institution of higher learning. The entire day was "hosted" by an actor playing the English butler Jeeves with tremendous flair. He dryly guided the proceedings and added a hint of humor to each presentation. This theatrical "gimmick" illustrated clearly the concept of an agent at work--anticipating the needs of each presenter and appearing at just the right time to move the program along.

The day was comprised of a series of presentations, by both MIT Media Lab faculty and professors and those in the world of business and research. The most memorable presentations of the day came from Alan Kay, Apple Fellow at Apple Computers, Michael Dertouzos, Director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, and The Media Lab's Director, Nicholas Negroponte. Each of these speakers touched on the role of the intelligent agent, where the idea came from and where it may go in the future. Although fascinating, these discussions also seemed fairly conceptual as many ideas that originated at the Media Lab seem to be when first encountered. Some "real" applications of the interface agent were introduced by Pattie Maes, the Assistant Professor at the Media Lab who originally conceived of the idea for the symposium. …

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