Predictions of Futures Past — Intelligent Agents

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One of the biggest challenges in future studies is that you can’t verify predictions about the future until you get there. So you have to wait, possibly a long time, to find out if your predictions were correct.

But today is already the future, or at least it is for some of us.

Here’s a prediction I made about “intelligent agent” technology in 1993.

The current state of the art in intelligent-agent technology is very limited. Existing agents are primarily separate systems which are not integrated into virtual worlds. Significant effort will be required to “bind” these separate agents to virtual worlds. Moreover, many of the existing artificial intelligence programs that will be used to construct agents do not operate in real- time.

Real-time execution of these programs will be required in order for agents to support real-time user interaction. Significant advances in the state of the art in a variety of computer technologies will be required to make real-time intelligent agents commonplace.

The ability to interact with intelligent agents as a means of accessing networks of databases and information systems has the potential to radically empower those individuals who have access to the necessary technology. Agents will reduce the amount of time spent doing busy work, responding to junk mail, and so on, freeing individuals to perform more creative and rewarding tasks. Agent technology will enable the construction of new and deeply involving worlds for entertainment purposes. These worlds will combine education and entertainment in a single rich medium, allowing exploratory and experiential learning and encouraging creative thinking.

Agent technology undoubtedly has some potential for very negative impacts on society also. The use of agent technology as a replacement for human beings might lead to widespread unemployment particularly in settings where the user is already interacting with machines. Examples include bank tellers, telephone operators, receptionists, and others whose jobs can be readily transcribed into simple sets of rules or typical cases.

Database inference systems have the potential to allow for widespread and devastating invasions of personal privacy. These systems also can be used to infer classified or proprietary information from public-domain knowledge, possibly encouraging new forms of international and industrial espionage.

Finally, it is not clear what effect prolonged and repeated interaction with non-human agents will have on people. Will it lead to a general de-humanization of the individual? Or will people come to have a greater appreciation for those characteristics that set people apart from machines? Only by considering these issues in the design, implementation, and use of agent-based systems can we be assured that the positive, empowering aspects of the technology will overcome the negative aspects.        

How close did I get to our present reality?

What about our near future?

What did I get notably and obviously wrong?

This was part of a larger article on Intelligent Agents that was one chapter in an eclectic book On The Cutting Edge of Technology published by SAMS Publishing. The book also covered nanotechnology, virtual reality, fuzzy logic, and chaos theory. Published in 1993, the book was ahead of its time but today is mostly of interest as a historical item. Some mixed production values mar this otherwise pretty interesting book, and there are some copies available online for collectors.

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