'Independent Agents' Prove Useful as Internet Expands
By JOHN MARKOFF
Once the territory of large corporations, research laboratories and the
military, advanced artificial intelligence research is now increasingly driven
by the consumer electronics and entertainment industries.
More than a dozen autonomous software programs capable of operating
independently -- performing tasks ranging from electronic shopping to
retrieving information over the Internet -- were demonstrated at the _First
International Conference on Autonomous Agents_, which ended Saturday in Marina
Del Rey, Calif. The push to commercialization of artificial intelligence is
just being renewed after numerous disappointments during the 1980s. Today a
growing number of researchers and entrepreneurs believes that the explosion of
the Internet is paving the way for new artificial intelligence applications.
A number of executives from companies including AT&T Corp., Microsoft Corp.
and IBM, were meeting in Marina Del Rey Sunday and Monday in an effort to
develop industry standards for autonomous agents.
Discussions at the conference highlighted the fundamental shift that has
occurred in the financing of artificial intelligence research.
"What is driving artificial intelligence now is the entertainment industry
instead of the defense industry," said Danny Hillis, a vice president and
research fellow at Walt Disney Co. Hillis, a computer scientist who founded
the supercomputer-maker Thinking Machines Corp., said the shift had led to a
sometimes rough cultural adjustment for computer researchers.
"The term 'agent' means something very different in Hollywood," he said.
However, the technology shift in the artificial intelligence field parallels
a similar transformation in other areas of the computer industry, where
increasingly powerful computing technologies are showing up first in consumer
The transition has taken place in part because simplifying computing -- with
voice recognition software, for instance -- often requires tremendous
increases in computer power. Moreover, with the end of the cold war, the
resources to make substantial investments in new computer technologies tend to
be found among those companies that make products designed to go under
This year's conference included multiagent programs that created synthetic
characters intended to act as "greeters" on World Wide Web sites, toy robots
that act like pets, software "agents"intended to simplify computer tasks and
special computer gateways for voice-controlled Internet browsing or retrieval
of electronic mail from cellular telephones.
Hillis said that autonomous software had already made its way into films like
Walt Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame." In that movie, the "extras" in the
crowd scenes were controlled by autonomous programs, not hand-drawn by
animators. The interacting programs yielded a more realistic look than
previous animated movies, he said.
Artificial intelligence technology has already begun to make its way into
personal computer software. Microsoft, for example, originally used software
agent technology, developed in its research laboratory, in its Office 95
application. Microsoft has extended the agent capabilities to assist computer
users with basic tasks in its recently released Office 97 software.
Despite such advances, many computer researchers remain skeptical about the
ability of artificial intelligence research to match human reasoning
capabilities any time soon.
"It's very hard to design intelligent programs that are going to come
anywhere near human intelligence," said Michael Dertouzous, director of the
Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He said that most artificial intelligence programs fall into two broad
categories: programs that follow simple if-then-else rules and other programs
that try to mystify their activities, but which are also essentially trivial
in their capabilities.
That fact has done little to check the enthusiasm of a new generation of
entrepreneurs who are rushing to develop software agents. The newcomers play
down recent disappointments like _General Magic Inc._, a heavily backed
start-up founded by a group of former Apple Computer Inc. computer designers
that promised agent-based systems.
Despite ambitious claims of a new generation of agent programs to perform
electronic commerce services, General Magic failed to win consumer support and
is now trying to redesign its software for the Internet.
The emergence of the World Wide Web and programming languages, like Java and
Microsoft's Active-X, are viewed as creating the basis for standards that will
support the development of commercial intelligent software.
"I like to think of myself as staffing cyberspace," said Barbara Hayes-Roth,
chief executive of _Extempo Systems Inc._, a company in Santa Clara, Calif.,
that is developing several lines of "characters" -- interactive text or
graphical programs that can interact with computer users on the Internet in
ways that are more realistic and entertaining than earlier programs.
One of the earliest such programs, Eliza, was written in 1966 by Joseph
Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Eliza was a novelty because it appeared to give conversational answers to
questions. However, the program could easily be fooled into giving nonsensical
Ms. Hayes-Roth, who was an artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford
University before leaving to found Extempo last year, said that her company's
characters functioned much like improvisational actors.
"We start by making characters that understand their situation," she said.
"We want characters that are interesting and don't do the same thing over and
Mobile agents that move from computer to computer in the Internet to perform
tasks are also being designed. The already crowded global Internet will soon
be awash in a new generation of mobile programs flitting from computer to
computer while automatically performing tasks as diverse as shopping and data
A group of researchers at the University of Washington computer science
department described a program called _Shopbot_ which is designed to perform
price comparisons at various Internet electronic shopping malls.
Other software agent developers said that research was just beginning into
the design of a network world in which programs were not cooperative and which
might try to take unfair advantage of each other in commercial transactions.
"The way to think about this is to consider software agents that are capable
of lying, cheating and stealing," said Tuomas Sandholm, an assistant professor
in the computer science department at Washington University in Saint Louis.
Autonomous Agents '97 Conference Web Site
Autonomous Agents '97 Software Demonstrations
Extempo Systems Inc.
University of Washington Softbots Research
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