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We begin our article with descriptions of three events that occur sometime in the future:

  1. The key air-traffic control systems in the country of Ruritania suddenly fail, due to freak weather conditions. Fortunately, computerised air-traffic control systems in neighbouring countries negotiate between themselves to track and deal with all affected flights, and the potentially disastrous situation passes without major incident.

  2. Upon logging in to your computer, you are presented with a list of email messages, sorted into order of importance by your personal digital assistant (PDA). You are then presented with a similar list of news articles; the assistant draws your attention to one particular article, which describes hitherto unknown work that is very close to your own. After an electronic discussion with a number of other PDAs, your PDA has already obtained a relevant technical report for you from an FTP site, in the anticipation that it will be of interest.

  3. You are editing a file, when your PDA requests your attention: an email message has arrived, that contains notification about a paper you sent to an important conference, and the PDA correctly predicted that you would want to see it as soon as possible. The paper has been accepted, and without prompting, the PDA begins to look into travel arrangements, by consulting a number of databases and other networked information sources. A short time later, you are presented with a summary of the cheapest and most convenient travel options.
We shall not claim that computer systems of the sophistication indicated in these scenarios are just around the corner, but serious academic research is underway into similar applications: air-traffic control has long been a research domain in distributed artificial intelligence (DAI) [Steeb et al., 1988]; various types of information manager, that filter and obtain information on behalf of their users, have been prototyped [Maes, 1994a]; and systems such as those that appear in the third scenario are discussed in [Levy et al., 1994][McGregor, 1992]. The key computer-based components that appear in each of the above scenarios are known as agents. It is interesting to note that one way of defining AI is by saying that it is the subfield of computer science which aims to construct agents that exhibit aspects of intelligent behaviour. The notion of an `agent' is thus central to AI. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that until the mid to late 1980s, researchers from mainstream AI gave relatively little consideration to the issues surrounding agent synthesis. Since then, however, there has been an intense flowering of interest in the subject: agents are now widely discussed by researchers in mainstream computer science, as well as those working in data communications and concurrent systems research, robotics, and user interface design. A British national daily paper recently predicted that:

`Agent-based computing (ABC) is likely to be the next significant breakthrough in software development.' [Sargent, 1992]
Moreover, the UK-based consultancy firm Ovum has predicted that the agent technology industry would be worth some US$3.5 billion worldwide by the year 2000 [Houlder, 1994]. Researchers from both industry and academia are thus taking agent technology seriously: our aim in this paper is to survey what we perceive to be the most important issues in the design and construction of intelligent agents, of the type that might ultimately appear in applications such as those suggested by the fictional scenarios above. We begin our article, in the following sub-section, with a discussion on the question of exactly what an agent is.

Next: What is an Up: Intelligent Agents: Theory Previous: Intelligent Agents: Theory
Fri Nov 4 16:03:55 GMT 1994