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