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JB: Are we talking about anthropomorphic assistants?

MAES: Agents are not necessarily personified. It won't necessarily look like a cute character on your screen - there's no reason nor need for doing that. For example, the Firefly work doesn't have any kind of personification, and still there is a system there that helps you in a personalized way. The two are orthogonal issues, and it's up to a designer of an agent to decide whether it's appropriate to use personification or not. In most of the work that we've done at our lab, the agents are not at all personified. In any event, I'll be happy to anticipate all of Jaron Lanier's comments and talk about them in the interview.

JB: Debate with an empty chair?

MAES: Jaron and I already had our debate on Hot Wired's "brain tennis" pages. We've already gone through this whole thing. But let me continue. I talked initially about very simple agents that would be completely programmed, like the milk monitor in your fridge; I talked about agents that can do some machine learning and that can pick up patterns and offer to automate them. A third approach that we have been pursuing the most actively is one where agents are not necessarily smart at all themselves, but what they do is they allow you to benefit from the intelligence of other people that have solved the problem that you are currently dealing with.

Take for example the buying of a car. I went through the process of trying to figure out what car to buy just a couple of months ago. I didn't know what methods to use, I didn't have a clue about what car I wanted to buy. I did a lot of research on the Web. The first problem was finding what Web site was worth going to in terms of car information, or new car information. Then I had to learn what the different Web sites could offer me; which ones have good reviews, which ones give you the information about actual cost and prices of new cars.

I dealt with this problem for a month or two, and I accumulated a lot of information about new cars and about car information on the Web, where you should go first and second and third etc., and then once I decided what car to buy I also gathered information about the exact cost of that car to the dealer, what the lowest price was that I could possibly get away with and how to get the best deal. I learned about the different dealerships in and around Boston for the particular Saab I wanted to buy. It's such a shame that someone else cannot benefit from all that work that I did . Wouldn't it have been great if something would have recorded some of my experience and some of what I learned so that then that knowledge would be available to another person who is going through exactly the same problem? We are a social species, and we can benefit from each other's intelligence and each other's problem solving. Very few of the problems that we deal with, very few of the tasks or activities that we deal with are completely original in the sense that nobody else has ever faced that same problem before. Almost every problem that we deal with is something that hundreds or sometimes even millions of other people have dealt with before.

It would benefit society if we could more easily reuse the knowledge and experience other people have gained about problems. This is one of the ways that we have built software agents - they don't necessarily have any information themselves about what you do when you want to buy a car, but what they do is monitor, and collect a lot of information about people solving problems, and then give you some of that condensed information and especially patterns that it finds among many people solving that problem.

JB: But, Pattie, you're not average, and besides, everyone wants to learn from geniuses.

MAES: Often people want to learn from people like themselves, or from people that they want to be like, or people they want to look like, and to some extent this is what these agents do. They figure out which people you should be drawing from, and they also gather some of the information, and allow you to benefit from the problem solving that other people have done when they dealt with a similar problem.

JB: How do you know who the other people are?

MAES: You may not necessarily need to know, although in some of our algorithms you can specify the kind of people you want.

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