Frequently Asked Questions
Korns Associates is a privately held applied research company that develops sophisticated agent technology, development tools, and applications. It was founded in June 1993, and has pioneered the use of "intelligent agents" for securities investing using a business model wherein its research is self-funding. In 1999 Korns Associates created Investment Science Corp to support, incubate, and sell commercial applications of the Korns Associates technology. For a more detailed description of Korns Associates' technology, click here.
There are many different definitions of "agent" that are being used, and they are not consistent. Even more confusingly, many companies use the word "agent" to describe any program that does anything for anyone.
For our purposes, an "agent" is a program building block that is capable of at least a rudimentary level of autonomy. It contains more than just raw binary computer code. It contains information about itself, about the goals it plans to achieve, about the knowledge it has accumulated along the way. It has some rudimentary mechanism for being informed when an outside source attempts to communicate with it. It can travel from one database server to another across LAN's, WAN's, intranets, and the Internet.
In Agent Information Serverô, "agents" are to intelligent systems what "cells" are to living systems - basic, self-contained building blocks, which form together in communities to form larger more complex systems. While each individual agent in an application may not be extremely sophisticated, a community of agents can quickly become very complex. Behavior may emerge from such a community of agents which is adaptive. Such emergent behavior may even appear "intelligent".
The term "intelligent agent" is no better defined than "agent" itself. It implies that the agent is using some reasonably sophisticated technology to guide itself and make decisions. In practice, other companies sometimes use the term simply to accentuate the presumed power of their programs (i.e., "it does something really interesting, so it's an intelligent agent").
Korns Associates is continuously phasing in new advanced technologies to its agent research, such as learning algorithms and negotiation protocols. As agents develop increasing sophistication, many agents will have more of a claim to calling themselves "intelligent".
As mentioned above, Korns Associates plans on incorporating advanced technologies into its research:
First, Agent Information Serverô is a new style of distributed database for dynamic data and knowledge representation. Java is a general purpose Web programming language and not a database.
Currently, Agent Information Serverô's agents are written in an agent oriented dialect of Lisp and exist inside the Agent Information Serverô repository at each distributed location on the Internet or Intranet.
Future development plans include support for Java and Smalltalk compilers within the Agent Information Serverô repository. At that time presumably our "agents" would be Lisp, Java, and Smalltalk agents existing inside the Agent Information Serverô repository as differentiated from Java "agents" existing outside our repository.
Besides Korns Associates, there are several companies working on agent software. A by no means exclusive list would include General Magic, FTP Software, Autonomy, IBM, and Microsoft, firefly. Each of these companies differs in terms of what its agents are designed to do, what platforms they run on, etc. For example, FTP Software makes a product called CyberAgent that is specially designed for doing system administration tasks (but knows nothing about Web navigation or interaction). Korns Associates concentrates on distributed database agents. General Magic builds a general system for agents that uses the proprietary Telescript programming language and engine (as opposed to Java, which is used by Microsoft and FTP Software). firefly makes a collaborative filtering engine that runs on a server and provides advice to users.
The programs developed by some companies like PCN, FreeLoader [Individual], and WebEx [Traveling Software] are specialized programs for the delivery of information to the user, and the term "agent" is often generalized to include "off-line browsing engines". Agent Information Serverô "agents" are autonomous programs, resident across a distributed database, which develop domain specific knowledge, understand natural language, perform complex logical inferences, migrate from one database node to another, collaborate in communities, and are able to deliver their knowledge, over the Internet, to the end user. Agent Information Serverô agents can also make run-time planning decisions based on what they find in each database node.
Microsoft, like almost everyone else, is using the word agent in this case to describe system management utilities (i.e., the "System Agent" that checks for low disk space or can be scheduled to defragment your disk). There is also a development group within Microsoft that provides "user interface agents" as part of the overall graphical user interface of Windows.
Don't get carried away. An agent is just a program, not magic. Software programs are constantly getting more sophisticated, and software agents will get more sophisticated, too. But there will still be a level of human interaction required, and it's likely that agents will focus on what they are good at repetitive, time-consuming activity that can be precisely specified.
Agent Information Serverô technology is designed around the concepts in a seminal book by Marvin Minsky, called "Society of Mind". In this book Minsky predicts that communities of specialist programs sharing ideas and opinions will win out over larger more monolithic concepts of Artificial Intelligence.
I am reminded of the early 1950's predictions that computers would soon win the world chess championship. It took much longer than the optimists thought -- but it did eventually happen. If the analogy holds, over time, agents will make the Web more easy, fun, and personal.
There are many sources of information about agents on the Web. Here are a few URLs to start with:
Korns Associates was founded by Michael F. Korns, and Gilda Cabral, who between them have over 45 years of experience in the software industry, as well as over 9 years of experience in research on agents.
Michael F. Korns serves as President of Korns Associates. He started his career working at IBM in Advanced Engineering. He has been Vice President Information Sciences at Tymshare Transactions Corporation, and Vice President Chief Scientist of Xerox Imaging Corporation. For over 35 years, Michael Korns has been an expert in converting academic research into commercial applications.
For more information, email Korns Associates at:firstname.lastname@example.org