"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 24 January 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Agents Provocateurs


[You Will]

You're surfing the Web. (Not too

hard to believe.) You hit a page

you haven't seen before.

(Wouldn't that be nice.) As

you're reading, your browser

tells you that if you click on

the link entitled "Yet Another

Link" you'll be taken to some

content that you'll find

interesting. (Only in an AT&T ad.)



No, we haven't been consulting

Scenarios - this is today. While

not exactly a new concept,

software that reads your mind

(or at least tries) is beginning

to show up all over the net.

It's intelligent agent software,

and if it's not on your computer

now, it probably will be soon.


[Knowledge Navigator]

No, this isn't the cute butler

that you were promised in the

Apple Knowledge Navigator video

from 1987 - he morphed into Bob.

Simply enough, this is software

that acts on your behalf. Of

course, all software does that,

but intelligent agent software

can do clever things such as

interact for you, or customize

GUIs. Cooperative agents can

communicate with network

services like online vendors,

while interface agents can watch

users and determine their

preferences or anticipate their

actions. Their degree of

"agency" can range from simply

acting autonomously to being

able to interact with other

agents, and their intelligence

can vary from basic

implementations of user-stated

preferences to observational




Did we say software that acts on

your behalf? Well, we meant

someone's behalf. Before you

type your credit card number

into an agent plug-in for

Netscape, consider what the wily

media hackers on Madison Avenue

(or should we say in Boston -

don't those MIT grads ever move

away?) are already doing. If

your browser can figure out your

preferences based on how you

surf, it doesn't take a PhD to

conclude that content providers

and their good friends, the

advertisers, can do the same

thing based on your hits to

their sites. Do a search on

"Windows 95" on Infoseek.

Notice that ad banner for the

Microsoft Network? Maybe it's

time you gave that icon on your

desktop a try.



Since technology begets

technology, you can nest the

countermeasures up to your

eyeballs. User agents can hide

ad banners and mask user

interests based on their local

scanning and filtering, while

advertisers can step up their

attempts to merge content and

ads into Web infomercials. We've

all heard of sites with

dynamically generated content

that spout smut if your browser

happens to be Scooter from Alta

Vista or Scoutget from Lycos -

the search engines index those

keywords, which generates more

hits to that page. Multiply that

a few thousand times over the

course of the next year in terms

of agents spoofing agents, and

expect to have to shill out some

bucks for a personal agent more

intelligent than the corporate

agents you need to deal with.

Then again, an agent pushing out

ad banners will probably never

try to sell one to you.



In technology wars, advertisers

rarely lose. Although ads for

VCRs that remove commercials

while you tape seem omnipresent

(there's a full-page ad for one

in this week's Time), without

software upgrades for those

VCRs, it's a safe bet that they

won't work with next year's ads.

But it's not all bad. We'd

rather see ads for products into

which we can pour our disposed

incomes than another Ginsu knife

set, and we suspect that

advertisers would much rather

show us something that we might

actually want to buy. If only

there were some way to have an

agent hide ads for all the crap

we've already bought and hated.

On the other hand, we're not

sure we'd want advertisers to

know that we actually caved in

and bought that Salad Shooter -

they'd probably just tag us as

an easy mark.



For all the brilliant work being

done in academia relating

artificial life to what passes

for our real lives, it all comes

down to practical applications -

so of course our thoughts turn

to the obvious (and we're not

talking about figuring out what

CD to buy via the

advertiser-supported agents at

Firefly): Can intelligent (and

presumably good looking) agents

make us more attractive to

members of the appropriate sex?

Once again, those oh-so-clever

product peddlers have already

taken that into account. Leave

it to them to pull a bait and

switch with a dating service

that turns out to be an

advertising vehicle. Bastards.

If we wanted rejection and

couldn't handle leaving our

keyboards, we'd just turn to

Julia, the CMU chatterbot. Why

do they bother with survey

questions? Any intelligence on

their part would undoubtedly

pigeonhole us as the losers we


courtesy of Ian Flaming