Secret Agent

Agent Technology could help us carry out many of life's tasks with little effort, but will it ever come out of the dark?

Agent Technology could help us carry out many of life's tasks with little effort, but will it ever come out of the dark?

The principle behind Agent Technology is, in essence, replacing the current human agents that everyone employs from time to time, such as estate or travel agents. Agent Technology can act as a middleman between the purchaser of a product or service and the provider - finding the best deal and organising necessary financial transactions. This idea is still a long way from bearing fruit and the mechanisms on how to get there are still being decided. But even so, there are still many questions that are raised by this kind of technology.

Dr Bent Thomsen, principal researcher and engineer for ICL said: "Agents can do many things. They can watch and inform you of certain events, such as the arrival time of planes; they can search to find you the best price on a given product; and they can orchestrate numerous events, such as arranging a romantic night out for your partner."

There are three types of agent under discussion: intelligent agents, multi-agents and mobile agents. Intelligent agents react and make decisions based on a set of beliefs they have. In this way they can offer advice, such as what kind of mortgage you should purchase, or take on a planning role, advising and helping the user on numerous other tasks that need to be completed in order to achieve the initial goal. Multi-agents rely on the expertise of a range of other agents to solve any given problem. Taking the advice of each individual expert, it can then condense the information into a correct solution. Mobile agents are pieces of code that will actually be able to leave a user's system and move across the Internet finding answers to problems before returning.

Unfortunately, mobile agents have numerous problems to overcome that may lead to the technology never seeing the light of day. Most of all, while the spread of the Internet has enabled mobile agents to be an actual possibility, it has also essentially removed the need for them. There is no need to send what many call a "benign virus" out over the Internet when the information can just as easily be drawn from the Web without the agent ever having to leave the user's system.

But it's not just mobile agents that have problems to deal with; there are serious fundamental issues to be addressed before agents will achieve any widespread appeal. Agents have to act with a great deal of autonomy, otherwise they will cause more problems than they solve. To do this they need to collect a great deal of information on the user's personal preferences, which can be obtained from direct questioning or from studying the behaviour of the said user.

Either way, this involves the user placing a great deal of trust in the agent that the information will not be passed on to other sources. At the moment there is still a big question mark in many people's minds over purchasing goods over the Web. Even though it is much safer than many other methods, passing credit card details over the Internet is still perceived by many to be an immense risk due to hacker threat or careless company security. To then hand your credit card details to an autonomous software agent who will go and make purchasing decisions on your behalf takes a great leap of faith. It will be up to the vendors to prove that this can be a safe method of transaction. The same can be said of holding personal information - if that falls into unsafe hands, there could be problems. ICL has stated that this type of agent is not yet safe to be let out onto the Internet, although it believes such an agent could operate safely within an intranet environment.

We can already experience some forms of agent-type technology on the Web. Intelligent search engines that can provide you with the best available answer from natural language questions, such as Ask Jeeves (, are out there already. Agent Technology is only just reaching this stage. ICL showed a product that could advise the user on the best type of mortgage for them through a spoken word interaction. The demo was impressive, but the product isn't likely to see the light of day until next year when it could be used on a financial advice website. Yet, finding the best mortgage on the Internet isn't an impossible task right now although current systems are rule-based and have no degree of autonomy.

This is another problem that Agent Technology faces. It is still some way off full implementation and acceptance into the market. Yet, at the same time, there are continuing advancements in software that offer similar services to those that agents will be able to provide. While not Agent Technology in the true sense, its perception to the public will be the same and may be more reassuring than the idea of an autonomous piece of code potentially running riot on their behalf.

While this could lead to true Agent Technology remaining constantly behind the leading edge and never being truly adopted, it is not something in principle that concerns ICL. "We are looking to the future and saying 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could do all these things?'", said Thomsen. "Whether it is Agent Technology or a development of current technology is neither here nor there - as long as it can do the things we all want it to."

Paul Grant

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