February 1997

Root Page of Article: (How) Can Software Agents Become Good Net Citizens?, by Sabine Helmers, Ute Hoffmann, and Jillian Stamos-Kaschke

Agents Explained

Software Agents

Providing a universally accepted definition for software agents--meant as a collective term encompassing "bots", "spiders" etc.--is nearly impossible. No terminological consensus has emerged so far.
"Carl Hewitt recently remarked that the question what is an agent? is embarrassing for the agent-based computing community in just the same way that the question what is intelligence? is embarrassing for the mainstream AI community. The problem is that although the term is widely used by many people working in closely related areas, it defies attempts to produce a single universally accepted definition. This need not necessarily be a problem: after all, if many people are successfully developing interesting and useful applications, then it hardly matters that they do not agree on potentially trivial terminological details. However, there is also the danger that unless the issue is discussed, `agent' might become a `noise' term, subject to both abuse and misuse, to the potential confusion of the research community." (Michael Wooldridge & Nick Jennings, "Intelligent Agents: Theory and Practice," in: Knowledge Engineering Review, Volume 10 No 2, June 1995.
Software agents, including news agents and intelligent agents, are just a few of the actors to be found on the WWW. News agents are essentially filtering software: they pick out desired information from the plethora of what is offered. Filtering software, can just as well be used to block out information, which is how the SafeSurf Web explorer works. Only pages which have been registered in a database with SafeSurf are displayed on the screen. This reader allows parents to selectively control and restrict their children's Internet access to contents which have been indexed as being suitable for children.

News Agents

News agents such as the Stanford Information Filtering Tool can perform other filtering activities. This software agent sorts simultaneously through thousands of news groups for articles for a large number of users according to keywords and sends an email with the results to the client. The multi-user agent Firefly (formerly known as HOMR or Ringo), developed at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology's Media Lab, compiles personalized music recommendations according to information given by other users with similar tastes in music.

Intelligent Agents

So-called "intelligent agents", by-products of AI research, are being developed to work as personal assistants that work in the same computer environment as the user. In contrast to other programs which invariably react to the same keywords or actions in the same manner, the object of these agents is to act in a way geared towards one certain person and, in a manner of speaking, independently and intelligently. Their developers envision them "learning" to sort through electronic mail according to the respective user's preferences, point out news and offers that could be of interest to the user or come up with suggestions for shopping. A number of experimental prototypes emerged from intelligent agent research projects such as BargainFinder, a consumer agent that assists with comparison shopping.


Enter the world of bots. From software agents to WWW navigational aids, the world of bots is an area of the virtual space that deserves attention. Besides the larger question of this new policy domain within cyberspace resides the question of defining these actors that are so prevalent on the Web.


Among the many varieties of bots living in the virtual world, chatterbots present themselves as people, although they are actually characters controlled by a program. Many such program-controlled agents pretending to be human users can be found on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels, the text-based party lines of the Internet, as it were. IRC bots are seldom talkative, though, and usually perform administrative tasks. They are mostly harmless, but have a bad reputation nevertheless. IRC bots consist of a script which defines what event the program waits for after logging in, in order to then react in a certain manner. IRC bots are often trained to report when a certain user logs in. They are sometimes used to take on an unwanted person's identity in order to prevent them from logging on to IRC.


In contrast to stationary robots like chatterbots, which work as information machines or watchdogs, agents whose activities are not restricted to their place of origin can also be found. Spiders are an example of this type of agent. Examples include WWW navigational aids ("Webcrawler", "Lycos", "Infoseek" or "Alta Vista") that enable keyword-supported searches on certain subjects from among the 60+ million WWW pages. They consist of a database assembled by Web robots which comb the WWW document for document, link for link.


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