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Agents and appropriation

There has been a flurry of references to `agents' in both the lay and technical press in recent months. While the idea of computational agents that do one's bidding goes back decades, the explosion of recent press has been astonishing. Pattie Maes and her group's work on learning interface agents has been cited in at least two dozen publications in the last year or so, many of them lay press (e.g., The Los Angeles Times, Mass High Tech or semi-technical press (e.g., MacWeek, MacWorld, etc). A symposium at MIT on agents and their programming, held in October of 1992, drew at least a thousand participants.

Further, buzzword frenzy has hit the industry as well. We have, for example, a Macintosh program called `Magnet', recently released from No Hands Software, which bills itself as `the first intelligent agent for the Macintosh'. In fact, the program is essentially a file-finder, which can locate files matching certain characteristics and perform some operation on the set, as well as other utilities such as synchronizing a PowerBook filesystem with that of some `home', stationary Macintosh.

We also have `At Your Service', from Bright Star, whose promotional literature starts with, `Remember the excitement you felt the first time you turned on a Mac? Now you can relive the magic and realize its full potential with At Your Service, the first animated Desk Accessory to give your Mac a 'human' personality. At Your Service features Phil, your Personal Assistant...he talks...he listens...he works for you!' In fact, this program is pretty trivial: it utters a spoken greeting when the Mac is turned on, issues reminders for preset events, issues alerts when email arrives, reminds you to stop typing every few minutes to ease hand and eye strain, contains a screen saver, and so forth.

At the Symposium on Agents at MIT in October 1992, Irene Greif of Lotus presented on a groupware version of Lotus 123 that made collaboration between multiple spreadsheet users easier. This is certainly respectable technology, but I would hardly call it an `agent', and her presentation had to work fairly hard to force it into the mold of an `agent-oriented' piece of work.

The popular imagination about agents that do our bidding has even extended to taking attributing human emotional and intentional states, out of context, to programs and shamelessly running with them. For example, consider Michael Shrage's article in The Boston Globe, March 7, 1993, imported by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, entitled, `A New Dimension in Deception'. In this article, Shrage picks up on the fact that a calendar-scheduling agent may have to decline a proposed meeting time and propose another to suit its user's tastes. However, a simple declination may not be sufficient; the agent might have to `lie' and `fabricate' a nonexistent appointment to get its peer agent to reschedule. Why this is a `new' dimension in deception, whereas using an answer machine for call-screening is not, is never explained.

And perhaps predictably, the same loose talk about `thinking' that eventually disillusioned many about artificial intelligence seems to be cropping up again in the guise of agents that learn.

What is so irresistably attractive about this concept that it has exploded into faddism in this way? Why has the press picked up on agents and produces so many articles about them? Why have so many companies suddenly tried to position their products as based on agents, even when they are manifestly no such thing?

An easy answer would be simple fashion. Fads sell. But rather than just leaving it at that, let us examine closely one of the best examples I know of which seems to be to be a true agent. We will then explore what characteristics I think make up true agents and help us to distinguish them from imposters, and finally take up the issue again of what is really going on in the agents fad.

Lenny Foner