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He may not do those things, but a different sort of agent promises to! Acting as our own little electronic Jerry Maguires, digital agents will obediently notify us when needles of interesting information are found in the information haystack. These agents will monitor our stock quotes, surf our favorite Web sites, and filter the daily deluge of incoming e-mail and news messages. They will even act as our personal shoppers, stockbrokers, and attorneys, transacting commerce in our stead. Agents will do our dirty work, permitting us to disconnect the neural shunts that shackle us to our workstations, freeing us to commune in the majestic serenity of nature.
No doubt the JavaWorld faithful are familiar with the concept of technology hype and how difficult it can be to distill a usable essence from the waterfall of snake oil spewing from the mouths of Silicon Valley profiteers. Like Java, digital agent technology is receiving considerable attention in the popular press, with many of the column inches devoted to philosophical "golly gee whiz" musings like the above.
Placing the hype aside, this article will attempt to explain the concepts behind digital agents and how they compare to other distributed computing models. Practical applications of the technology will be identified, as will some of the tools available for implementing agent-based systems. Finally, using IBM's excellent Aglets Workbench, we will create two agent-driven applications, a distributed search engine and a virtual supercomputer.
In a broad sense, the precepts of agent technology exist in many of the applications we use today and take for granted. For example, your e-mail client is a type of agent. At your request, it goes about its business of collecting your unread e-mail from your mail server. Contemporary e-mail clients will even presort your incoming messages into specified folders based on criteria you define. In this manner, the software becomes an extension of the user, performing tasks on the user's behalf. Indeed, the computer itself can be considered an agent, as its primary task is to increase productivity through automation.
Most often you hear about intelligent agents, such as the e-mail client that exhibits some sort of artificial smarts to determine the importance of a particular piece of e-mail -- possibly by scanning the message text for tell-tale indicators of urgency ranging from "deadline" or "won the lotto" to "introductory offer" or "marketing." However, agents need not be intelligent. For example, an ActiveX control that indiscriminately deletes files from your disk and then reboots your machine for you can hardly be considered intelligent. Nonetheless, it could be characterized as an agent of sorts.