Magazine article Online

Intelligent Agents; Software Servants for an Electronic Information World (and More!)

Magazine article Online

Intelligent Agents; Software Servants for an Electronic Information World (and More!)

Article excerpt

The term "agent" often suggests the shadowy world of espionage, betrayal and divided loyalties. In the software area, however, smart agents or intelligent agents not only have a different purpose, but they also have the potential to be extremely useful to their users, especially as the technology becomes further developed. This article is the first appearing in ONLINE on the topic of intelligent agents. We will therefore introduce the concept, discuss some of the properties of agents, the need for agent technology in a number of areas, and then focus on information retrieval, discussing several interesting software systems that exhibit agent functionality.

Intelligent agents are autonomous and adaptive computer programs operating within software environments such as operating systems, databases or computer networks. Intelligent agents help their users with routine computer tasks, while still accommodating individual habits. This technology combines artificial intelligence (reasoning, planning, natural language processing, etc.) and system development techniques (object-oriented programming, scripting languages, human-machine interface, distributed processing, etc.) to produce a new generation of software that can, based on user preferences, perform tasks for users. (For a tutorial on artificial intelligence and a discussion of its application to information retrieval, see Hawkins' 1987 and 1988 articles in ONLINE (1)(2). Nicholas Negroponte, Director of MIT's Media Lab, is often credited with initially identifying the agent concept and likening it to an English butler (3).

Typical tasks performed by intelligent agents could include filtering electronic mail, scheduling appointments, locating information, alerting to investment opportunities and making travel arrangements. Individuals are capable of handling these routine tasks and have been doing so for years, of course, but intelligent agent technology holds the promise of easing the burdens on users by automating such tasks.


The modern and increasingly competitive global business environment and the growing complexity of personal lives create high demands to perform many (often simultaneous) tasks efficiently and promptly. To help accommodate these far-reaching lifestyle changes, new tools are needed to support the imperatives of this rapidly changing environment. Intelligent agent technology has a significant potential to affect peoples' lives in many areas. Here are some typical examples:

* Users can be easily overwhelmed by the huge amount of information available and the effort required to find specific information they need (assuming they can locate an appropriate source in the first place). Support is needed to automatically sort and filter an incoming data stream into a manageable amount of high-value information that can be customized for each individual user.

* In an increasingly mobile business environment, messages must be filtered and routed intelligently to recipients on the move.

* There is a strategic need for increased support for tasks performed by "knowledge workers" (such as managers, technical professionals and marketing personnel), especially in the decision-making area. Timely and knowledgeable decisions made by these professionals greatly affect their personal success and the success of their businesses in the marketplace.

* There is a pressing need to automate tasks performed by administrative and clerical personnel in functions such as sales support or customer care to reduce labor costs and increase office productivity. Today, labor costs are estimated to be as much as 60 percent of the total information delivery cost of sales, service and support organizations (4).

* In a fast-paced society, time-strapped individuals need new ways to minimize time spent on routine personal tasks so they can devote their leisure time to more gratifying activities. …

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