THE ``intelligent agent'' - or ``knowbot'' - is a smart piece of software that will one day change how people use their computers.
Knowbots can automate many of the procedures computer users currently perform: sorting electronic mail, searching databases, and shopping on-line.
Already, a handful of companies are selling agent-enabled software. AT&T and a Silicon Valley startup, General Magic, expect to popularize the idea.
``We saw that intelligent agents were a promising technology to solve problems that customers are always having,'' says Bill Fallon, marketing director for PersonaLink, AT&T's new service. ``The only way we'll know if it works in any network is to see if it works in this network.''
AT&T intends to start the service this summer. It will allow users to manage electronic messages, get help from an electronic assistant when shopping on-line, and download addresses of appointments, hotels, and restaurants in cities where they are traveling.
Messaging will be the most popular service, at least initially, analysts say. With PersonaLink, a user can tell an agent to carry an electronic message to Bill Smith's mailbox and have it sit there until 11 a.m. If still unread at that time, the agent will clone itself and carry the message to Mr. Smith's fax machine.
AT&T will be able to program this service by using a new communications language from General Magic called Telescript. (AT&T is one of a number of high-profile investors in General Magic, including Apple Computer, Sony, Motorola, Phillips NV, and Matsushita.) Ironically, Telescript's success probably will not depend on the agent technology, but on consumer acceptance of the hand-held computers for which it was designed. If these hand-held computers, called personal digital assistants or PDAs, take off quickly, then Telescript could become an industry standard and powerful moneymaker. Otherwise, it could flop completely.
``I view a lot of those alliances ... and the creation of these on-line services to be experiments,'' says Richard Buchanan, analyst of the computing strategy service of Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Telescript ``is kind of a risk, but a courageous risk.''
All the attention to Telescript is prompting the industry to take a new look at lesser-known companies already selling agent-enabled software. ``It is increasing the awareness of the technology and adds credibility to a story that we have been telling,'' says Paula Berman, marketing director for Beyond Inc. The Burlington, Mass., company sells BeyondMail software, which uses intelligent agents to automatically route and organize electronic mail.
``What Telescript will do is put an infrastructure in there,'' adds Alper Caglayan, president of Charles River Analytics Inc. in Cambridge. The company sells a $99 program called Open Sesame!, which uses knowbots to automate tasks on the Macintosh.
Knowbots can accomplish other tasks too. SandPoint Corporation, another Cambridge company, markets Hoover, which vacuums information from a variety of databases. Edify Corporation in Santa Clara, Calif., sells an agent-enabled program to retrieve and deliver information. BMC Software in Houston last week acquired Patrol Software, which monitors computer networks by using agents.
``It's something whose time has come,'' says Fred Cohen, head of the management analytics division of Science Applications International Corporation, a large systems integrator. ``People are no longer adequate to do systems administration for large networks.''
Some daunting challenges remain before knowbots become mainstream. It is not clear how low-power Telescript PDAs, for example, will be able to do more than the most rudimentary searches of news databases. Companies like Individual Inc. in Cambridge require powerful workstations to filter the news.
Another issue is security. Some intelligent agents are like computer viruses because they clone themselves, but in a useful way. Information providers are going to be skittish about having such programs moving onto their computers, says Judith Grass, a senior technician with the Corporation for National Research Initiatives in Reston, Va., a nonprofit organization. Some companies may demand that agents be made less powerful, which will make them less useful to users.
And users themselves will have to become convinced that they need knowbots. ``It's going to take a lot longer than General Magic and its partners think,'' says Tom Henry, vice president of product creation at SandPoint. ``The hard thing is making it as simple as it wants to be.''
Ultimately, consumers will decide whether intelligent agents are a smart buy. ``As long as its perceived value is `smart' to the user, that's fine,'' Mr. Caglayan says. ``It doesn't have to have an IQ of 70 ... to be useful to the user.''