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3 Who are Investigating Software Agents for What and Why?

We eschew answering this question in a futuristic sense in favour of providing a flavour of the scope of the research and development underway in universities and industrial organisations. The range of firms and universities actively pursuing agent technology is quite broad and the list is ever growing. It includes small non-household names (e.g. Icon, Edify and Verity), medium-size organisations (e.g. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), General Magic, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of London) and the real big multinationals (e.g. Alcatel, Apple, AT&T, BT, Daimler-Benz, DEC, HP, IBM, Lotus, Microsoft, Oracle, Sharp). Clearly, these companies are by no means completely homogeneous, particularly if others such as Reuters and Dow Jones are appended to this list.

The scope of the applications being investigated and/or developed is arguably more impressive: it really does range from the mundane (strictly speaking, not agent applications) to the moderately ësmartí. Lotus, for example, will be providing a scripting language in their forthcoming version of Notes which would allow users to write their own individual scripts in order to manage their e-mails, calendars, and set up meetings, etc. This is based on the view that most people do not really need ësmartí agents. Towards the smart end of the spectrum are the likes of Sycaraís (1995) visitor hosting system at CMU. In this system, "task-specific" and ìinformation-specificî agents cooperate in order to create and manage a visitorís schedule to CMU. To achieve this, first, the agents access other on-line information resources in order to determine the visitorís areas of interest, name and organisation and resolve the inevitable inconsistencies and ambiguities. More information is later garnered including the visitorís status in her organisation and projects she is working on. Second, using the information gathered on the visitor, they retrieve information (e.g. rank, telephone number and e-mail address) from personnel databases in order to determine appropriate attendees (i.e. faculty). Third, the visitor hosting agent selects an initial list of faculty to be contacted, composes messages which it dispatches to the calendar agents of these faculties, asking whether they are willing to meet this visitor and at what time. If the faculty does not have a calendar agent, an e-mail is composed and despatched. Fourth, the responses are collated. Fifth, the visitor hosting agent creates the schedule for the visitor which involves booking rooms for the various appointments with faculty members. Naturally, the system interacts with the human organiser and seeks her confirmation, refutations, suggestions and advice.

Most would agree that this demonstrator is pretty smart, but its ësmartnessí derives from the fact that the ëvalueí gained from individual stand-alone agents coordinating their actions by working in cooperation, is greater than that gained from any individual agent. This is where agents really come into their element.

More examples of applications are described later but application domains in which agent solutions are being applied to or investigated include workflow management, network management, air-traffic control, business process re-engineering, data mining, information retrieval/management, electronic commerce, education, personal digital assistants (PDAs), e-mail, digital libraries, command and control, smart databases, scheduling/diary management, etc. Indeed, as Guilfoyle (1995) notes

"in 10 years time most new IT development will be affected, and many consumer products will contain embedded agent-based systems".

The potential of agent technology has been much hailed, e.g. a 1994 report of Ovumís, a UK-based market research company, is titled "Intelligent agents: the new revolution in software" (Ovum, 1994). The same firm has apparently predicted that the market sector totals for agent software and products for USA and Europe will be worth at least $3.9 billion by the year 2000 in contrast to an estimated 1995 figure of $476 million (computed from figures quoted in Guilfoyle, 1995). Such predictions are perhaps overly optimistic.

Moreover, as King (1995) notes telecommunications companies like BT and AT&T are working towards incorporating smart agents into their vast networks; entertainment, e.g. television, and retail firms would like to exploit agents to capture our program viewing and buying patterns respectively; computer firms are building the software and hardware tools and interfaces which would harbour numerous agents; Reinhardt (1994) reports that IBM plans (or may have already done) to launch a system, the IBM Communications Systems (ICS), which would use agents to deliver messages to mobile users in the form they want it, be it fax, speech or text, depending on the equipment the user is carrying at the time, e.g. a PDA, a portable PC or a mobile phone. At BT Laboratories, we have also carried out some agent-related research on a similar idea where the message could be routed to the nearest local device, which may or may not belong to the intended recipient of the message. In this case, the recipientís agent negotiates with other agents for permission to use their facilities, and takes into consideration issues such as costs and bandwidth in such negotiations (Titmuss et al., 1996). At MIT, Pattie Maesí group is investigating agents that can match buyers to sellers or which can build coalitions of people with similar interests. They are also drawing from biological evolution theory to implement demonstrators in which some user only possesses the ëfittestí agents: agents would ëreproduceí and only the fittest of them will survive to serve their masters; the weaker ones would be purged.

It is important to note that most of these are still demonstrators only: converting them into real usable applications would provide even greater challenges, some of which have been anticipated but, currently, many are unforeseen. The essential message of this section is that agents are here to stay, not least because of their diversity, their wide range of applicability and the broad spectrum of companies investing in them. As we move further and further into the information age, any information-based organisation which does not invest in agent technology may be committing commercial hara-kiri. [an error occurred while processing this directive]