Saturday, March 13, 2010

Updated State of the Art for Software Agent Technology

I just updated my web page for State of the Art for Software Agent Technology. I originally wrote it in 2004 and the world has changed a bit since then. Alas, I do not have a lot of great progress to report. As I wrote in this year's update:

The technology sector has evolved significantly since I originally wrote this page in 2004, but software agent technology has stagnated somewhat, at least from a commercial perspective. Research continues, but the great hopes for software agent technology, including my own, have been deferred.

For example, the European Commission AgentLink initiative published its Agent Technology Roadmap in 2004 and an update in 2005, but there have not been any updates in the five years since then.

A lot of the effort in software agents field was simply redirected to the Semantic Web, Web Services, and plug-ins for Web browsers and Web servers. Rather than seeing dramatic advances in intelligent agents, we have seen incremental improvements in relatively dumb but smart features embedded in non-autonomous Web software such as browsers and server software.

Again, there has been a lot of progress, but no where near enough to say "Wow! Look at this!"

My real bottom line is simply that a lot more research is needed:

I hate to say it, but for now the field of software agents remains primarily in the research labs and the heads of those envisioning its future. There have been many research projects and many of them have made great progress, but the number of successful commercial ventures is still quite limited (effectively nonexistent.) There are still many issues and unsolved problems for which additional research is needed.

Nonetheless, I do remain hopeful and quite confident that software agent technology will in fact be the wave of the future, at some point, just not yet or any time soon.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, March 07, 2010

David Gelernter: Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously

I just finished reading an essay on Edge by noted computer scientist David Gelernter entitled "Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously" which basically argues for his concept of lifestreams as a better model for publishing and accessing information than today's web model. Rather that organizing information in a spatial form, he recommends that we think about and organize information along the time dimension. As he puts it:

The Internet's future is not Web 2.0 or 200.0 but the post-Web, where time instead of space is the organizing principle -- instead of many stained-glass windows, instead of information laid out in space, like vegetables at a market -- the Net will be many streams of information flowing through time. The Cybersphere as a whole equals every stream in the Internet blended together: the whole world telling its own story.

He proceeds to describe the nature of the problem and how lifestreams will address it:

13. The traditional web site is static, but the Internet specializes in flowing, changing information. The "velocity of information" is important -- not just the facts but their rate and direction of flow. Today's typical website is like a stained glass window, many small panels leaded together. There is no good way to change stained glass, and no one expects it to change. So it's not surprising that the Internet is now being overtaken by a different kind of cyberstructure.

14. The structure called a cyberstream or lifestream is better suited to the Internet than a conventional website because it shows information-in-motion, a rushing flow of fresh information instead of a stagnant pool.

15. Every month, more and more information surges through the Cybersphere in lifestreams — some called blogs, "feeds," "activity streams," "event streams," Twitter streams. All these streams are specialized examples of the cyberstructure we called a lifestream in the mid-1990s: a stream made of all sorts of digital documents, arranged by time of creation or arrival, changing in realtime; a stream you can focus and thus turn into a different stream; a stream with a past, present and future. The future flows through the present into the past at the speed of time.

16. Your own information -- all your communications, documents, photos, videos -- including "cross network" information -- phone calls, voice messages, text messages -- will be stored in a lifestream in the Cloud.

17. There is no clear way to blend two standard websites together, but it's obvious how to blend two streams. You simply shuffle them together like two decks of cards, maintaining time-order -- putting the earlier document first. Blending is important because we must be able to add and subtract in the Cybersphere. We add streams together by blending them. Because it's easy to blend any group of streams, it's easy to integrate stream-structured sites so we can treat the group as a unit, not as many separate points of activity; and integration is important to solving the information overload problem. We subtract streams by searching or focusing. Searching a stream for "snow" means that I subtract every stream-element that doesn't deal with snow. Subtracting the "not snow" stream from the mainstream yields a "snow" stream. Blending streams and searching them are the addition and subtraction of the new Cybersphere.

18. Nearly all flowing, changing information on the Internet will move through streams. You will be able to gather and blend together all the streams that interest you. Streams of world news or news about your friends, streams that describe prices or auctions or new findings in any field, or traffic, weather, markets -- they will all be gathered and blended into one stream. Then your own personal lifestream will be added. The result is your mainstream: different from all others; a fast-moving river of all the digital information you care about.

In short:

To accomplish this, we merely need to turn the whole Cybersphere on its side, so that time instead of space is the main axis.

There is much more to his model for information in the "Cybersphere", but time-based lifestreams are his core starting point.

-- Jack Krupansky

The welling up of knowledge

I was reading an essay on Edge by noted computer scientist David Gelernter entitled "Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously" and ran across a reference to the concept of information welling up in the context of his conception of lifestreams. He wrote:

Ten years ago I described the computer of the future as a "scooped-out hole in the beach where information from the Cybersphere wells up like seawater."  Today the spread of wireless coverage and the growing power of mobile devices means that information does indeed well up almost anywhere you switch on your laptop or cellphone; and "anywhere" will be true before long.

That's an interesting concept. Rather than explicitly accessing data by going to its source or explicitly searching for it, all one need do is create the proper situation (the well) and the data simply appears or wells up, welcomed but not directly or explicitly bidden per se.

So, we have a collection of concepts here, in my view:

  • knowledge wells (or data wells or information wells) which are places where information can simply materialize (or the data equivalent)
  • knowledge welling, the incremental (or streaming or merely "seeping") appearance of data in a knowledge well (or data well or information well)
  • welled knowledge (or welled data or welled information), which is knowledge that appears in a knowledge well
  • wellable knowledge (or wellable data or wellable information), which is knowledge that is somehow prepared or packaged or published in a form that makes it readily distributable to knowledge wells.

At a simplistic level, a knowledge well could simply be a search query directed at some data source, but to truly fulfill Gelernter's vision, something far more sophisticated is needed. What that something might be I cannot say at this time.

Curiously, maybe there is a community collaboration angle there as well, since the term reminds me of the famous The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link known as The WELL. Whether or not a connection between the two concepts would make sense would depend on how specific and narrow one wants to define the terms. One could define a simple RSS feed as an information well, I suppose. One could define the Twitter public timeline as an information well. Sure, one can tap into any "conference" on The WELL, but then that is a fairly narrow information stream. Somehow, a Gelernteresque knowledge well would have a more global, blended un-focus, I would think.

Thinking about how information might well up reminds me of a concept I considered years ago, something I call GMWIMW, for Give Me What I Might Want, a mythical filter for information on topics that I do not even know about yet. That would be at least one type of knowledge well that I would be interested in.

-- Jack Krupansky