Intelligent agents are a member of the bot family—software programs that operate unattended, usually on the Internet. Therefore, agents are sometimes referred to as bots. Individuals or organizations use intelligent agents to perform functions or tasks that otherwise would involve human interaction or repetition. Operating independently on behalf of their users, some intelligent agents mimic human behavior and thought processes and are able to make decisions, learn, and interact with other intelligent agents. Intelligent agents come in stationary and mobile varieties, meaning that they can either reside on individual computer systems or travel from server to server across the Internet to carry out different tasks.
According to Online, there is agreement among many authors in the field of artificial intelligence that a true intelligent agent must be social, adaptable, proactive and autonomous. In the early 2000s, intelligent agent technology was still evolving and a single agent with all four of these traits had not been created. Multi-agent systems, or groups of intelligent agents in which each exhibits one or several of the four behaviors, were in development. Nevertheless, many evolving forms of intelligent agents existed in everything from search engines to computer help systems.
In the world of e-commerce, intelligent agents known as shopping bots are used by consumers to search for product and pricing information on the Web. Each shopping bot operates differently, depending on the business model used by its operator. In one scenario, shopping bots direct users to retailers who, by subscribing for a fee, are part of a closed system. Shopping.Yahoo and [email protected] are examples of this model. Open systems are a more common arrangement and involve agents that include the entire Web in their searches.
Shopping bots have become very popular with consumers. In Time, International Data Corp. revealed that about 4 million shoppers took advantage of the technology in October 2000 alone. However, they weren't popular with some companies because of their ability to initiate bidding wars and eat away profits in the process.
In addition to searching for durable goods, electronics and other items, consumers also were expected to use intelligent agents more frequently in the area of personal finance. In Bank Systems & Technology, a report from Andersen Consulting stated that personal financial bots (PFBs) would reshape this industry by becoming "virtual financial intermediaries" that carry out transactions and searches for financial products via ATMs, wireless phones, and televisions. While this concept had not been widely adopted in the early 2000s, it posed a possible threat to the umbrella model used by many traditional banks, in which several products and services—including loans, credit cards and insurance—were offered to customers by one provider.
Intelligent agents also provide varying levels of customer service on the Web. In addition to providing direct answers to common questions, they can save companies money by helping customers narrow down their problem before speaking to a live customer service rep. One emerging intelligent agent was able to anticipate what customers might want based on the Web pages they looked at. Created by Denver-based Finali, the netSage also was able to mimic human emotions, including disappointment if it was unable to answer a customer's question. In addition to reducing customer service costs, intelligent agents are useful for converting potential customers, many of whom abandon online "shopping carts" without making purchases, to actual customers.
Although they have been used more frequently in the consumer arena, intelligent agents also have potential applications in the area of business-to-business e-commerce. For example, a manufacturer requiring many different parts to create one product could use an intelligent agent to not only find the best prices from different suppliers, but to consider many other variables that impact the total manufacturing cost, such as shipping, cost and quality. Theoretically, the intelligent agent could do this more quickly and efficiently than a human. Ultimately, this could result in significant cost savings for companies.
By maximizing efficiency and convenience, intelligent agents will likely play increasingly important roles in the world of e-commerce. In Computer Reseller News, the Gartner Group estimated that bots would account for as much as four percent of all IT spending by 2002. The following statement from IBM, printed in Computerworld, is further indication of the key role this technology will play in the near future: "We envision the Internet some years hence as a seething milieu in which billions of economically motivated software agents find and process information… Agents will naturally evolve from facilitators into decision-makers."
As IBM's vision becomes reality, security will become a concern for buyers and sellers alike. When consumers send agents out with strategic objectives and the ability to negotiate terms and conditions and make purchases on their behalf, they will need assurances that the agents can't be manipulated or compromised by other agents. Likewise, companies will need to watch for agents that are used for malicious purposes.
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SEE ALSO: Shopping bots