Eclectic Thought Samples From Larry Burns

Wanted: An Intelligent Agent, Circa 2000

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Despite what the title of this post may imply, we’re not here to discuss either James Bond or the CIA – unless those intelligent agents were part of a sophisticated online technology that could process a complex set of queries, learn my preferences over time and constantly adapt to provide me with an ever richer cache of information.

While it is complicated, I promise you that the original premise of such an “intelligent agent” is exciting. As we spend our time these days talking about “big data” and fancy algorithms, I’d like to hit the way-back button to the late 90’s and early 00’s, right around the time of the first Internet bubble. This is when the concept of an intelligent agent first struck me as a quite logical end product for what we as humans really want from our technology.

 What do I mean exactly by an intelligent agent, if not a spy? An intelligent agent would be a tool that does an online search based on expressed desires, but in a much more complex, fulfilling and personalized way than search engines do today. In this concept, an intelligent agent allows you to address the tool, tell it what you are seeking in either a very specific manner (I want a new car) or, even better, in terms of simple curiosity about a more general topic (cars). The results will be influenced by your individual known likes, wishes and desires. Because your personal intelligent agent has “learned” (and/or been taught) about your unique preferences, when you send it forth out into the web, it can make choices, digest and filter data in order to bring back only things that are relevant and meaningful to you.

It would then present you with curated, pre-digested content, arranged in a fashion you have indicated you find easy to consume. So, in effect, you either ask a question, express a need/want, or an area of inquiry you want to know more about. You give the agent a time frame, and walk away. The agent begins sorting through the vast oceans of data on the Internet to convert what you seek into a dashboard of information, customized to your preferences on how you wish to consume what it finds.

 This isn’t the kind of word or topic search that we’re all familiar with like Google and the other search tools we’re addicted to. That’s why it’s “intelligent.” (See what I did there?) It’s not a “find everything that deals with the word X” type of query. I am in no way knocking the power of Google, because it does do truly amazing things, far more than just a boolean word match, but that type of search is still insufficient to what we really need. An intelligent agent could theoretically do so much more.

 Unfortunately, we still don’t have a prototype for an intelligent agent at the moment. As a child of the 1950’s, I feel the same way about the intelligent agent premise I came up with 15 to 20 years ago that I do while sitting in traffic, when I get that “Where’s my flying car?” kind of feeling. It’s something we ought to have by now, that would really help folks live their lives better and avoid being stuck, unable to progress.

The concept of making things easier in life is one I’m sure we can all get on board with. So why hasn’t the intelligent agent come full circle yet? We do have bits and pieces of the idea in place, but, in part, it’s because today, our concept of value is still expressed in terms of monetary wealth and profit. Aside from the enormous effort it will require and the huge unanswered question of how to construct this intensely complex technology, one reason it hasn’t come to fruition might be way the technology business is structured and funded. Making people’s lives easier doesn’t always translate into profit.   However, I have renewed hope as I see a lot of really interesting social companies starting up, some of which do focus on harnessing technology for the greater good – as a core company value. However, it is a safe guess that business and financial leaders don’t yet know how to directly make money with an intelligent agent concept, so until that can be articulated well, the scale of this task will remain daunting

 No matter what the future holds for the specific notion of intelligent agents, I remain hopeful that by harnessing the power and massive scale of data, our interconnectedness, and the very human quality of curiosity we will see tools emerge that genuinely make our lives easier… at least in terms of solving some of our #FirstWorldProblems.

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