Have Data, Will Travel

The Economist, May 14, 1994

HIGHLIGHT: Autonomous programs could make computer networks weirder and more wonderful. We look at how they could help, and how they might evolve

Julia has a helpful disposition. When people using a particular computer system need advice, Julia is there to offer it. Such kindness is attractive; some of those whom Julia helps would like to express their gratitude in person, perhaps with roses and fine wines. To this, though, as to much else, Julia is not well placed to respond. She is not programmed for dates. She is not available off-line. Julia is an agent, a program used to do a somewhat human task without taking up a human's time. Most agents are too simple to beguile any but the most fetishistic nerd. But they are becoming more sophisticated. In a decade or so, you may be as likely to meet a "person" like Julia in your computer network as you are a person like yourself.

Agents are familiar figures in myth and fairy tale. Magicians have the power to get inanimate objects to do their bidding: those are their agents. Nowadays technology provides agents aplenty. Your thermostat keeps the temperature the way you like it; your video recorder watches the time to record "Roseanne"; your answering machine takes telephone calls. They all sense the environment and respond to it in the way you, their magical master, would wish -- you hope.

Software agents do the same sort of thing in computer networks -- work for you while you do something else. They sort electronic mail, select articles for personalised newspapers, or even -- at least in principle -- go shopping in a virtual marketplace. Nor need they help only their masters; like Julia, they can help other people too. Computer networks such as the Internet, which links more than 15m machines around the world, have opened up lots of new ways to help yourself and to be helped: increasingly, it is hard to track all the opportunities down in the sprawling tangle that the networks' ad-hoc growth has created. Technology is just beginning to catch up with the demands that this expansion is creating.

A software company in California, General Magic, has pushed agent technology as far as any company to date. Over the past three years it has developed a commercial standard for software agents. It calls these agents "intelligent", and anything in the computer world called intelligent is by definition not. But they may prove extremely capable.

General Magic provides programmers with a language that Patie Maes, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, calls the most sophisticated agent-programming language available. Traditional software agents have shunted information around, sometimes thus activating a program already present elsewhere. General Magic's agents will run as fully fledged programs on any computer that has the company's Telescript system running on it, and can move between such computers as the see fit.

That sounds good if you want capable agents, bad if you are worried about security. An agent looks disconcertingly like a computer virus, doing things on other people's computers they may not want done. General Magic promises that Telescript stops its agents from doing any harm by isolating them. A Telescript agent is a program only when Teles