Appendix A

The following message was posted to an agents mailing list on 7 June 1995. The mail header information has been trimmed, a hyperlink to the softbots added, and minor formatting adjustments made.

From agents@SunLabs.Eng.Sun.COM Thu Jun  8 09:18 EST 1995
Date: Wed, 7 Jun 1995 16:17:26 -0700
Message-Id: <>
From: (Oren Etzioni)
Subject: Re: Agents debate at Chi '95


As I see it, your message raises three fundamental issues:

1. What's an agent?
2. What technology do we have for building agents and agent-based
3. Are agent-based interfaces desirable?

I'll address the first question below, but I'd like to point out that
while we're still struggling to invent the appropriate technology for
constructing competent agents, this does not in any way diminish the
desirability of agent-based interfaces.

Just because we haven't found a cure for cancer or an AIDS vaccine
doesn't mean that we should stop looking.  The desirability of agents and the
likelihood we will obtain sophisticated ones within the next 3-5 years
should be evaluated separately.

1. What's an agent?  By "agent" we mean someone who acts on your
   behalf.  Information agents are loosely analogous to travel agents,
   insurance agents, etc.  In the hope of demystifying the term, here
   is a list of characteristics that have been proposed as
   desirable, agent qualities.

   o Autonomous: an agent is able to take initiative and
     exercise a non-trivial degree of control over its own actions:
     - Goal-oriented: an agent accepts high-level requests
       indicating what a human wants and is responsible for deciding
       how and where to satisfy the requests.
     - Collaborative: an agent does not blindly obey commands,
       but has the ability to modify requests, ask clarification
       questions, or even refuse to satisfy certain requests.
     - Flexible: the agent's actions are not "scripted"; it is able to
       dynamically choose which actions to invoke, and in what 
       sequence, in response to the state of its external environment.
     - Self-starting: unlike standard programs which are directly
       invoked by the user, an agent can sense changes to its
       environment and decide when to act. 
   o Temporal continuity: an agent is a continuously running
     process, not a "one-shot" computation that maps a single input to 
     a single output, then terminates.
   o Character: an agent has a well-defined, believable
     "personality" and emotional state.
   o Communicative: the agent is able to engage in complex
     communication with other agents, including people, in order to
     obtain information or enlist their help in accomplishing its
   o Adaptive: the agent automatically customizes itself to the
     preferences of its user based on previous experience.  The agent
     also automatically adapts to changes in its environment.
   o Mobile: an agent is able to transport itself from one
     machine to another and across different system architectures and

2. Technology?  See 
   for my favorite..

3A. The agent metaphor: I find the argument against the agent metaphor
   the most surprising.  I believe that most people would want to
   delegate boring, tedious, or difficult tasks to an agent.  We see
   this happening in human interaction constantly.  Perhaps, the argument
   is that automated agents will not be up to the capabilities of
   human agents.  However, this is not an argument against the agent
   metaphor; rather, this is simply a variation of the argument that
   the technology isn't there (yet).  As anyone with a capable
   assistant knows, both the concept and the practice of delegating to
   an agent is remarkably helpful.   

   This point was recognized by many visionaries.  In an article
   entitled "Hospital Corners," Nicholas Negroponte uses the task of
   making one's bed as an illustration: "Today, notwithstanding the
   skill, I cherish the opportunity of delegating the task and have
   little interest in the 'direct manipulation' of my bedsheets...
   Likewise, I feel no imperatives to manage my computer files, route
   my telecommunications, or filter the onslaught of mail messages,
   news, and the like.  I am fully prepared to delegate these tasks to
   agents I trust as I tend to other matters ..."

3B. An application for agents: let me demonstrate that they exist by way
   of example.  I believe that in the future we will see more and more
   users desiring mobile access to information across low bandwidth
   channels (e.g., from a hand-held computer) or even from a cellular
   phone.  For such access, direct manipulation and visual browsing
   (e.g. Mosaic) will not work.  The agent metaphor of making a request 
   or asking a question is much more appealing.

3C. Realistic expectations: this is an excellent point.  If the past is
   any indication, we need to be very careful with the kind of
   expectations we generate.  Otherwise, solid technology and good
   research will end up with a bad name.

I think that the point regarding agents "taking control of the
computation away from the user" is important.  While users may not be
interested in the details of the computation, presumably they want to
remain in control, particularly as decisions involving money are made.
I view this as a technological challenge (raised by Donald Norman and
others) in how to make agents 1) that leave the user in control 
and 2) that are able to communicate what they are doing and 3) that
ask for approval on important decisions.



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Last modified 19 November 1995, 23:45
© Copyright 1995 Karl Auer