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IBM Research

Digital Agents Transform Internet Services

IBM Haifa Labs News Center

Translated from: The El Pais Digital Edition, Madrid - February 13, 2003

An agent is an independent software component that acts upon its owner's instructions to fulfill simple or complex tasks, without constant monitoring or instructions. The agent can function in unpredictable surroundings or cooperate with other agents. An agent can be anything from the animated paper clip of Microsoft Office applications to the digital agent that participates in artificial life programs for robots.
By Joan Carles Ambrojo

Madrid, Spain - The components of artificial intelligence have left the laboratory, and huge corporations like IBM, Microsoft, Siemens, Hewlett-Packard, BT and Motorola are working overtime on new developments. Smaller companies, such as Lost Wax or Whitestein Technologies are also getting involved, working on agents for specific tasks. PriceWaterhouseCoopers has predicted that agent-based platforms will soon cease to exist as standalone components, and that we will soon see such platforms integrated into major applications.

An example of the dynamic nature of this sector is the AgentCities project. The agent development initiative, comprised of representatives from about 80 countries, met in Barcelona to allow software researchers and manufacturers to present and display their latest results. The conference also included a symposium of AgentLink, the European network of agent researchers.

E-business provides excellent opportunities for the introduction of agent-based technologies. For example, the electronic materials acquisition market requires agents that can monitor item prices, decide which is the preferred price, compare it with the price noted by the client , and supply the item for the client.

Agents must be capable of operating correctly in infrastructures other than those for which they were conceived, and to collaborate with agents of other manufacturers. The adoption of agent-based technology, however, has met numerous barriers. The lack of standards is one.

Until recently, there were not many commercial software agent applications, "but such applications are now reaching the end user," affirmed Ulises Cortes, coordinator of the AgentCities conference and a researcher at the Catalan Polytechnic University (UPC) of Barcelona. In the near future, customized agents will be on the market, thinks Cortes, just like any other software package.

Europe is a hotbed of agent development activity, especially regarding the creation of protocols, software engineering, and practical applications for telecommunications and electronics networks. But European research is weak in the areas of auctions, military applications, interactive entertainment, and robots, agent-based fields in which the United States and Japan reign supreme.

The fifth framework program of the European Community for research, also known as FP5, hopes to remedy that situation, and has dedicated 50 million to forty projects of agent technology research, according to Joel Bacquet, the coordinator of these programs. Spain has a strong group of university researchers in the field (an example of recent study is a project designed to electronically facilitate transplant allocations). The commercial applications of this technology have, until now, been employed by only a handful of companies, such as Agent Inspired or iSOCO. The latter has introduced an intelligent addition to the Microsoft Bcentral Web application.

Several examples exist of the successful use of agents. A case in point is Southwest Airlines-the carrier has increased its income by $10 million by simulating its freight routes.

Corporations must be flexible in order to benefit from agent technology, stated Navi Radjou, an analyst at Forrester Research. Last year, he added, "large corporations such as SAP, IBM and Icosystem made a lot of noise about their agent-based ventures." Has the era of agents arrived? Radjou is unsure. "Only when users understand the business value of this technology, will they begin to take advantage of it."

It is also possible that businesses are slow to adopt agent-based technologies because of the current economic downturn, which has resulted in reduced spending. This reality is reflected in the accelerated growth of global outsourcing, the shrinking of products' service life, and inconsistent demand. These are real numbers-Ford outsources 60% of its engineering activities; Nike manufactures 80% of its products in other people's factories in the Far East; and even Ericsson has suffered, despite its oft-celebrated efficiency, due to an inflexibility in its supply chain.

Cultural Resistance

But "agents do not provide a solution for everything," said Onn Shehory, an expert on the subject from IBM Research in Israel. "Agents are generally applicable for component-based systems, distributed on a network, that exhibit dynamic changes. These autonomous systems need to handle large amounts of information from multiple, heterogeneous sources."

According to Shehory, agents have not yet lived up to expectations in the world of e-commerce. Slow adoption of the technology, he noted, can be attributed to the fact that "the B2B community is still adapting to the infrastructure of first generation electronic markets, whereas agents already belong to the second generation."

Shehory also pointed out that the legal and ethical responsibilities of agent development are unclear. "What happens if an agent makes a bad decision for a client?" the IBM researcher asked. In the end, Shehory noted, cultural and psychological barriers also have an impact. "Would you delegate your financial decision-making to an autonomous software agent?"


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