Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Intelligent agents stink (?)

I ran across an old 1996 WIRED article by Jaron Lanier (the guy who coined the term "Virtual reality") entitled "My Problem with Agents" which he leads with the statement "Intelligent agents stink." One of his key statements is that:

If an agent seems smart, it might really mean that people have dumbed themselves down to make their lives more easily representable by their agents' simple database design. This is a serious problem because it could sneak up on us. People are so much more flexible than computers and so prone to suggestion. ... Agents would be - like the television commercial - a simple device that causes a grand decrease in the beauty and intelligence of our society.
He concludes:

The whole point of the Net is the empowerment of the people, not the computers. That happens only if people choose to be empowered. Let's not blow this chance for more human autonomy because we're caught up in the fantasy of machine intelligence.

So, the big question is whether intelligent agent technology and machine intelligence have made any significant progress in the nine years since Jaron made his critical assessment of software agent technology.

In other words, do intelligent agents still stink?

I'll allow readers to jump to their own conclusions, but I'd note that at the present time, machine intelligence seems to work best when it is embedded within a system rather than directly exposed to a user. From this perspective, the question I'd pose to Mr. Lanier is whether he would prefer that systems be composed of dumb components or smart components.

That said, I'd say that we have quite a distance to go before the typical system is based primarily on smart let alone truly intelligent components.

-- Jack Krupansky


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