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1 Introduction

The main goal of this paper is to overview the rapidly evolving area of software agents. The overuse of the word ëagentí has tended to mask the fact that, in reality, there is a truly heterogeneous body of research being carried out under this banner. This paper places agents in context, defines them and then goes on, inter alia, to overview critically the rationales, hypotheses, goals, challenges and state-of-the-art demonstrators/prototypes of the various agent types currently under investigation. It also proceeds to overview some other general issues which pertain to all the classes of agents identified. Finally, it speculates as to the future of the agents research in the short, medium and long terms. This paper largely reviews software agents. Since we are overviewing a broad range of agent types in this paper, we do not provide a definition of agenthood at this juncture. We defer such issues until Section 4 where we present our typology of agents.

The breakdown of the paper is as follows. Section 2 notes the situation of smart agents research in the broad field of Distributed Artificial Intelligence (DAI) and provides a brief history. Section 3 identifies the scope of applicability of agents research and notes that there is a diverse range of interested parties. Before the core critical overview of the agent typology of Section 5, Section 4 provides our view of what smart agents are; it also identifies the different types of agents which fall under the ëagentsí banner and warns that truly smart or intelligent agents do not yet exist! They are still very much the aspiration of agent researchers. Section 6 overviews some more general issues on agents and and speculates briefly towards the future of agents in the short, medium and long terms. Section 7 concludes the paper. [an error occurred while processing this directive]