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Search For Tomorrow

Calling Agent 001101

No one knows how the intelligent agents of the future might really work, and once you venture more than a few months out you're already into some seriously fuzzy territory. But you might imagine that this intelligent agent could gradually take on so many characteristics of your mind that it becomes something of a digital doppelganger, your shadow self.

To borrow and slightly distort something from "Star Trek," it's like your personal digital Borg, having absorbed your thoughts and melded them with an existing software program.

When Google first appeared, in 1998, it seemed like a throwback. Rather than a jazzy "portal," it was just a plain ol' boring search engine. (Google)

_____Related Coverage_____
Online Search Engines Help Lift Cover of Privacy (The Washington Post, Feb 9, 2004)

Perhaps this digital self could become a commodity, something marketable. Imagine that you have to write a paper for a class about the future of search engines. You don't want to use your own lame, broken-down, distracted, gummed-up-with-stupid-stuff virtual secretary to do your research. You want to download Bill Gates's intelligent agent, or Paul Saffo's, or Sergey Brin's, to help you ask smarter questions and find the best answers.

There are primitive intelligent agents already. Amazon.com makes book recommendations based on your previous purchases and the judgments of others who have liked the same books you've liked. But this form of collaborative filtering is still fairly crude.

Microsoft senior researcher Eric Horvitz describes a variety of new and future technologies in which software is more active, more of an entity, no longer just some inert codes waiting for the user to issue a command. For example, there's a program he already uses called IQ, for "implicit query."

"As you're working, we continue to formulate queries in the background, that the user doesn't even know about. They're happening very quietly," Horvitz says.

But Horvitz is keenly aware that people don't want a program that's too pushy, that's constantly interrupting. Humans have limited powers of attention. Software, says Horvitz, "needs to be endowed with the kind of common courtesies we'd expect from a well-mannered colleague."

And lurking over the future of such programs is the dilemma of privacy. There's valuable information in the way people use the Web, but they may not want others, or even a machine, to pay close attention to every place they venture. How do you create an intelligent agent that knows when to look away? How do you avoid what Horvitz calls the "monster possibilities"?

What everyone wants is a reasonable, discreet intelligent agent, like an English butler. It should be one that can get things accomplished, to take the extra steps even without being prompted.

"I don't think anyone wants a search engine," says Seth Godin. "I think people want a find engine."

Find, and do. Solve problems. Make it so.

"I often use the analogy of Web agents being like travel agents," says James Hendler, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland. "When I go to my travel agent and say where I want to go, they don't usually just say, 'Yes, you can get there.' They give me some options of different ways to get there. They think about some things I might have forgotten. Do I need a car, do I need a hotel reservation? And then they go do it for me."

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