Making Web do your bidding

Proxies: Internet analysts predict software-based agents will one day negotiate on the Web on behalf of clients, catering to and protecting their interests.

January 24, 2002|By Mark Harrington | Mark Harrington,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Online concierge for hire.

Qualifications: Able to act on your behalf as a virtual representative on the Internet. Will barter with merchants for the lowest prices, alert you to only the most urgent e-mails and voice mails, fend off disreputable marketers and automatically set appointments with doctors, mechanics, brokers.

Work on a need-to-know basis.

Salary: Negotiable.

Get ready. Computer scientists and tech professionals are preparing a brave new world of software-based, intelligent agents that will act as virtual support staffs for any human being willing to trust them. The main difference: They'll work 24/7, won't take a lunch break and never utter a gripe.

"They shouldn't be terribly different from a secretary or a personal buyer," said Roger Schank, a leading artificial intelligence expert and professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The agents, he said, would be accessible in a number of ways, including from Internet service providers and more intuitive online sellers.

Doing their work almost completely behind the scenes on an Internet whose vast universe of knowledge is increasingly structured or "tagged," these agents would reflect online the personalities of their clients, be able to seize financial opportunities, barter for the lowest prices, sort data and customize all that information.

"For the Net to be more useful, we have to make it more intelligent," said Dan Lulich, chief technology officer at RuleSpace Inc., an Internet infrastructure company in Portland, Ore. "Right now, it's just a huge repository of information. It's really quite unstructured."

The agents would be a far cry from their more primitive ancestors, the so-called "bots," which are largely single-function engines employed by surfers to search, for instance, for the lowest-priced DVD player and let them know what it found.

Agents will be designed to work much more intuitively, autonomously and silently than simple bots.

"As [agents] increase their efficiency, people will give them more autonomy," said Douglas Lenat, founder and president of Cycorp Inc., a computer intelligence software firm in Austin, Texas, who has been a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University.

Lulich said the challenge is to tag all the Web's information so an agent can assess its usefulness. It's a moving target, however, he notes, because the roughly 2 billion Web pages in existence are multiplying at a progressively quicker pace.

While intelligent agents will gradually work their way into online life, experts say, it'll be at least five years before they are gainfully employed in optimized fashion. Meanwhile, they are certain to ignite serious debate about online privacy, because they will be representing their clients, bearing considerably more information about them than just a simple credit card number. They'll take with them an online allowance to make purchases when opportunities are ripe. They'll also negotiate deals to reveal information about clients to prospective marketers, so those customers could be alerted to items of interest when they become available at the right price.

Agents would also know a fair amount about clients' medical histories, be able to determine they're due for physicals and check physicians to set up appointments, Lulich predicted.

Of course, all this cyber-interaction would require vast new levels of participation from all levels of business, government and consumer sectors.

Analysts predict agents' use would constitute a trade-off, with those most willing to give them the most autonomy being most apt to benefit from the wide array of services the workers could provide.

"The desire and willingness of consumers to accept this will increase" as its value becomes apparent, Lenat said. "People always make the choice for increased luxury and power over privacy."

In addition to privacy concerns, there are ethical issues. Agents are apt to come upon some bad apples - counteragents programmed by their clients to dupe your agent out of its allowance. Experts say agents would have to be programmed with a level of common sense, but stop short of saying they would exhibit emotions like shame or guilt that would stop them from committing fraud.

"There's always the possibility of being conned," said Lenat. "Some agents will be taken advantage of." But he doesn't expect them to subvert their clients.

Though dozens of companies are at work on projects that are setting the stage for agents, much work remains to be done. For instance, who would pay for these agents? Some believe that the importance of the information would set a "market" for the amount consumers would be willing to pay. The more of an edge clients would get, the more they would pay. Or, agents could earn a percentage of a transaction, depending upon how much their work benefited their clients' earnings. Either way, analysts predict, expect them to bring considerable sociological changes.

"Life will change, the way it did when electrical appliances were available for the masses," Lenat said.

Lenat said e-mail services such as MSN Hotmail are, effectively, dumb agents, spending the day collecting e-mail, with a limited ability to filter out the junk. Such services in the future, he said, would be able to filter, prioritize and abbreviate e-mail and voice mail.

There would, of course, be limitations to the agents. Significantly, while they could make arrangements for you in the physical world, they could not, of course, make appearances for you. You would still have to show up.

Mark Harrington writes for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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