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Sit down and let your bot do all the hard work.

Autonomous, intelligent software agents are cruising the Internet, searching for news, finding bargains and, in the wilder parts of the Internet, causing mayhem.

You may be interacting with what you think are people, but they are nothing more than very clever pieces of software.

There is a rigorous purist approach to define software agents but it is regarded as cool to refer to these pieces of software as bots (short for robots).

The original bot was known as Eliza, a 240 line piece of code which hung around in early multi user domains responding to typed questions with quirky responses based on simple rules.

Interestingly, sociological research revealed that it took some people an incredibly long time to realise they were not conversing with a human.

When Eliza was let loose in multi-player arenas, she could be used to answer questions about the game, who was active, their history, where objects could be found and so on.

Eliza was the first of a line of chatterbots. Advanced chatterbots are now being used to deliver online training and should probably be called teacherbots.

A company called Neuromedia even has a toolset to allow you to design chatterbots to which you can transfer institutional knowledge and corporate information. Its website is served by its very own virtual representative known as Shallow Red - obviously a distant relative of Deep Blue.

Every time you use a search engine you are using an index of pages built up by bots known as crawlers and spiders which "visit" web sites listing their contents.

Badly behaved bots can bring web sites to their knees as they visit every page and report their findings. An ethical, voluntary standard is in place, which asks visiting bots to check in first at a file called robots.txt, which lists where they can go an d what is off limits.

If you use Internet Explorer 4 and subscribe to sites so that you can be notified when it changes, you are using a bot.

If you subscribe to "Push" engines which deliver information to you based on a set of personal preferences, you are using a bot.

Internet Chat rooms and Usenet newsgroups have been a hothouse for bot development.

Cancelbots search for particular topics and phrases and cancel the entry - often used by political or social adversaries; clonebots steal identities and kick you offline; guardbots monitor for clonebots and cancelbots and stop them.

Annoybots are similar to cancelbots but just post endless streams of annoying content in response to phrases.

Gossipbots monitor online chat and news conversations and then report back who said what to whom.

But the big bucks are being spent on research on secretarybots by the likes of Andersen Consulting and IBM with their Intelligent Agent Software Technology Centre.

These bots will be intelligent and carry out your wishes (and learn from your behaviour) even when you're offline. The BargainFinder agent can already scour web sites looking for the best price for CDs for you.

They will play an enormous role in knowledge management and electronic commerce.

Imagine your washing machine being able to determine from the load how much electricity it will require and negotiating a spot price for electricity from the cheapest carrier.

Imagine what that will do to the billing systems of the electricity companies. Once digital television with its hundreds of channels is mainstream, programme listings will be impossible to navigate without your own personalised bot scouring them and maki ng recommendations to you.

But agents raise serious security and trust issues, particularly when bots and agents start doing deals with each other.

Intelligent agents which adapt their behaviour and interact with each other are already close to deployment by large network carriers who openly admit that the behaviour of their networks is beyond human comprehension and intervention.

What happens when software agents get to work on national and global economies? You've not heard the last of bots. Unregulated, they could become the age-old nightmare of technology pushing humans aside.

Brian Prangle is new product strategy manager at SCC (Specialist Computer Centres)

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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 27, 1998
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