Lost? Send in the hounds

Finding what you're looking for on the Web is about to get easier.

Have you ever spent hours trying to find something on the Internet without really knowing where to look? If not, count yourself in a lucky minority. For the Net's vastness - the incredible, ever-expanding amount of information it contains - makes it both a thing of wonder and a source of irritation to those who use it. There are numerous "search engines" to help you find your way around, but all too often they are slow to respond to a query and when they finally do you are presented with long lists of irrelevant items.

But a revolutionary solution, drawing on research into neural networks and artificial intelligence, is now at hand. Known as an "intelligent agent", it is an ingenious piece of software that does all the searching for you and, unlike conventional search engines, can distinguish between different meanings of the same word. Those who are promoting agents say this is just the beginning. They are already talking of agents that will negotiate deals for you, pay bills and arrange home entertainment such as music or movies.

The concept of employing artificial intelligence for searching the Net and other computer networks has been around for some time. Several companies, including Microsoft, have been putting a lot of effort into producing a viable application. "It has been the Holy Grail for software developers", says David Tabizel, a consultant to Durlacher Multimedia, who has watched the development of agents.

In August, the race was won by Autonomy (a Cambridge-based technology start-up) when it released several different agents in beta form. Autonomy is linked to Cambridge Neurodynamics, a company that specialises in artificial intelligence and is associated with the university. Initially, Autonomy offered a cut-down version of Agentware for free download (though only for PC users; Mac users will have to wait until next year). The package includes three "Web Researchers" that can be programmed to search simultaneously for anything on the Web, or in newsgroups or FTP sites. You can also choose from 50 "pre-trained" agents at the site, programmed to look for specific subjects. Autonomy is selling full versions of its products in two packages - Agentware and Agentware Pro.

Autonomy's agents can function while you are connected to the Net, allowing you to monitor its searches or carry out other tasks. An efficient way is to send them off like bloodhounds, while you are off line. Once they have finished sniffing around, they rest in "kennels" on a designated computer server, with their bag of files and other goodies, waiting for their "master" to call them home. "In the morning, you come back and everything they have found is delivered to your computer," says Simon Morris, Autonomy's marketing director. The agent stores all the site addresses, allowing you to switch back to the original sources.

What makes agents so special, says Mr Tabizel, is that they can "learn" from experience. He has been beta-testing Autonomy's models since the beginning of the year. He cites an experimental search he did for information on Everton Football Club. "At first, it couldn't find anything useful. But I left it running and it went back and started to piece together information on players, fixtures, results and history. Eventually, I ended up with about 300 really good bits of information. It's eerie watching it learn, but quite incredible."

Mr Tabizel says agents have the ability to talk to each other, opening up the possibility of "negotiating". An executive can instruct his or her agent to talk to their opposite number's electronic diary and work out a mutually convenient time for a meeting.

Agents can be programmed to work the other way round, screening out material you may prefer not to see. As part of the Agentware package, Autonomy is releasing Guardian Agent, which is targeting parents concerned at the possibility of their children accessing pornography on the Net. Another specialised agent in its portfolio is Press Agent, which searches online newspapers and other information sources according to your preferences. "It allows you to create a "Daily Me" newspaper, delivered straight to your computer", says Morris.

At the moment, Autonomy has the pure agent market to itself. "It has scored a real coup by getting there first," says Mr Tabizel. But competitors are already lining up. AgentSoft, a subsidiary of the Israeli multilingual software specialists Accent Software, is planning to release a set of agents by the end of the year, including one to handle negotiations in electronic commerce. Agents Inc is also expanding its activities and Microsoft's agent is expected soon.

But with all these agents buzzing around, talking to each other, handling our day-to-day affairs, what will there be left for us humans to do? As Mr Tabizel points out: "The development of agents brings us to the final stage of computing, where machines are becoming autonomous." What an unsettling thought.

A 30-day trial version of Agentware, including WebResearcher, Press Agent and Mail Agent, is available at http://www.agentware.com

Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

    Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

    Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Day In a Page

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect