Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: IT Innovation for Small Businesses

'Intelligent agents' putting the smart in artificial intelligence

Machines and systems equipped with their own values and objectives are bringing a new level of sophistication to a range of applications across defence, customer service and gaming.

Expect "intelligent agents" — artificial Intelligence (AI) systems equipped with their own sets of beliefs and life goals — to increasingly feature across areas as diverse as logistics, manufacturing, entertainment, gaming, and defence.

That's the message of veteran AI expert and RMIT research fellow Dr John Thangarajah. According to Dr Thangarajah, while artificial intelligence has been used for some time, an increasing number of application areas now require software components equipped with more sophisticated intelligence — intelligent agents.

"Intelligent agent technology is a particular way of developing software [that] has been used to develop software systems in a variety of application areas, including logistics, crisis management, holonic [flexible] manufacturing, business process management, and unmanned aerial vehicles," he told ZDNet.

"These applications often require software components that are autonomous, in the sense that they can achieve tasks by making intelligent and rational decisions where necessary without human intervention."

Dr Thangarajah said an intelligent agent approach to software development differs from traditional approaches to AI development in that systems are designed and structured in terms of "mental attitudes" — variables such as beliefs, goals, intentions, and commitments — rather than "object-oriented" methods.

"The use of such mental attitudes in software design allows developers to break complex decisions into smaller, more intuitive pieces, and hence construct systems with the appropriate behaviour," he said.

"System designs with these concepts are more readily absorbed and understood by industry experts who aren't necessarily software programmers, which makes them even more desirable."

It is just these attributes that have made intelligent agent technology attractive to everyone from games developers who are developing intelligent role-playing games to call centres for automated customer service, and now for Australia's Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO).

The defence agency has called in the Agents Group at RMIT's School of Computer Science, which Dr Thangarajah is a part of, to help build its new Maritime Domain Tactical Simulation platform.

The scenario-based platform will utilise intelligent agent technology to help model tactical behaviours for Australia's submarine fleet across a range of underwater missions and situations.

RMIT's work with the DSTO, which is being funded through an AU$135,000 grant from the agency, highlights the quality of work around intelligent agents being carried out in Australia by universities such as RMIT, the University of Melbourne, and Swinburne, and companies such as Agent Oriented Software and RealThing, according to Dr Thangarajah.

"A number of Australian IT companies are either developers or users of agent technologies, and Melbourne in particular is an internationally recognised centre for agent research and development," he said.