Semi-autonomous agents: What are they, exactly?

by: The Doctor [412/724/301/703/415]

This post is intended to be the first in a series of long form articles (how many, I don’t yet know) on the topic of semi-autonomous software agents, a technology that I’ve been using fairly heavily for just shy of twenty years in my everyday life. My goals are to explain what they are, go over the history of agents as a technology, discuss how I started working with them between 1996e.v. and 2000e.v., and explain a little of what I do with them in my everyday life. I will also, near the end of the series, discuss some of the software systems and devices I use in the nebula of software agents that comprises what I now call my Exocortex (which is also the name of the project), make available some of the software agents which help to expand my spheres of influence in everyday life, and talk a little bit about how it’s changed me as a person and what it means to my identity.

So, what are semi-autonomous agents?

One working definition is that they are utility software that acts on behalf of a user or other piece of software to carry out useful tasks, farming out busywork that one would have to do oneself to free up time and energy for more interesting things. A simple example of this might be the pop-up toaster notification in an e-mail client alerting you that you have a new message from someone; if you don’t know what I mean play around with this page a little bit and it’ll demonstrate what a toaster notification is. Another possible working definition is that agents are software which observes a user-defined environment for changes which are then reported to a user or message queuing system. An example of this functionality might be Blogtrottr, which you plug the RSS feeds of one or more blogs into, and whenever a new post goes up you get an e-mail containing the article. Software agents may also be said to be utility software that observes a domain of the world and reports interesting things back to its user. A hypothetical software agent may scan the activity on one or more social networks for keywords which a statistically unusual number of users are posting and send alerts in response. I’ll go out on a limb a bit here and give a more fanciful example of what software agents can be compared to, the six robots from the Infocom game Suspended.

In the game, you the player are unable to act on your own because your body is locked in a cryogenic suspension tank, but the six robots (Auda, Iris, Poet, Sensa, Waldo, and Whiz) carry out orders given them, subject to their inherent limitations but are smart enough to figure out how to interpret those orders (Waldo, for example, doesn’t need to be told exactly how to pick up a microsurgical arm, he just knows how to do it). So, now that we have some working definitions of software agents, what are some of the characteristics that make them different from other kinds of software? For starters, agents run autonomously after they’re started up. In some ways you can compare them to daemons running on a UNIX system or Windows services, but instead of carrying out system level tasks (like sending and receiving e-mail) they carry out user level tasks. Agents may event in a reactive fashion in response to something they encounter (like an e-mail from a particular person) or in a proactive fashion (on a schedule, when certain thresholds are reached, or when they see something that fits a set of programmed parameters). Software agents may be adaptive to new operational conditions if they are designed that way. There are software agents which use statistical analysis to fine tune their operational parameters, sometimes in conjunction with feedback from their user, perhaps by turning down keywords or flagging certain things as false positives or false negatives. Highly sophisticated software agent systems may incorporate machine learning techniques to operate more effectively for their users over time, such as artificial neural networks, perceptrons, and Bayesian reasoning networks. Software agent networks may under some circumstances be considered to be implementations of machine learning systems because they can exhibit the functional architectures and behaviors of machine learning mechanisms. I wouldn’t make this characterization of every semi-autonomous agent system out there, though. Read more “Semi-autonomous agents: What are they, exactly?”