MAKING FRIENDS WITH COMPUTER AGENTS
Eight years ago I wrote a column in COMPUTE! magazine detailing how people could program their own "computer friends" inside their home computers. A computer friend was a program written in BASIC. When the program began running, the friend would come to life inside your computer and have a conversation with you. You could name the friend, teach it your name, and give it personality traits, special interests, and lovable quirks. You could even program the friend to tell your favorite jokes.
The idea for a computer friend came from my habit of naming my cars. Over the years I have gone through several cars, each with its own name (like George, Eric the Orange, Mishy Kiku, and Peppy) and each with its unique personality. I began thinking that if cars could have names and personalities, then so could computers. You can decorate your car and give it a personality all its own, so you should be able to program a computer to act as your friend.
I was also inspired by a famous artificial intelligence (AI) program called Eliza written by MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum. When you sat down at the computer, Eliza would act like a psychoanalyst trying to get to know a new patient. The session would start with Eliza's asking you some friendly questions, such as What is your name? and Do you have any brothers or sisters?
You would type in answers, and Eliza's questions would start getting more and more personal. Before you knew it, you would be telling "her" all sorts of extremely private things, such as how you felt about your mother and father, if you had ever been mean to your cat, and other secrets. Even world-famous computer scientists would sit down and begin chatting with Eliza, telling her embarrassing personal tidbits that they wouldn't dare share with another human being.
In my column I challenged COMPUTE!'s readers to invent their own computer friends. The readers' response was unbelievable. I received hundreds of letters and over five dozen disks in the mail, each with its own customized "Friend" program written in BASIC and each with its own special design. Many of the programs printed out a picture of the computer friend. Some of the computer friends were good at reciting poetry, puns, and odd bits of trivia. Others had a special knowledge of comic-book heroes, offbeat movies, science-fiction books, and rock music.
Each time I ran one of the readers' friend programs, I felt I was meeting a new person, and in a funny way I knew that the friend was a reflection of the human who invented it (just as my cars were a fun house–mirror reflection of me). I came to think of the computer friends as if they were side-kicks of their inventors, like the dummy Charlie McCarthy and his creator Edgar Bergen or Kermit the Frog and Jim Henson.
I wrote several columns featuring many of the best computer friends that readers sent in. Interest in computer friends was high for many months, but eventually it faded.
Recently a new type of computer friend has become popular. These new friends are called agents. An agent is a program, as the computer friend was. Its job is to "live" inside your computer. Whenever the computer is turned on, the computer agent does special chores for you.
What chores does an agent do? It can automatically sign onto your online information services and bulletin boards and assemble a personalized electronic newspaper for you out of news stories and data it has collected overnight, concerning topics especially interesting to you. It can print out this newspaper, and you can read it at the breakfast table before you leave for school or work.
What else can an agent do? If your computer were wired into some household appliances, your agent could do things like shut the house lights off and on when you wanted, start coffee brewing in the morning, or turn on the VCR and TV whenever your favorite program came on. It could play your stereo system, print out messages to remind you of your best friends' birthdays, and even play games with you.
Thanks to the growing popularity of agents, it's time to take another look at computer friends. What kind of agent or friend would you invent? Would your agent have human characteristics, or would it resemble an animal, a robot, an alien, or something completely different? What sorts of tasks would you assign to your agent? What machines would it control for you? Would your agent have a name? A fictitious past? Some favorite computer jokes? Would your agent be reliable and trustworthy? Or fickle and unpredictable? Would it be fun-loving and a practical joker or an awful nag?
Please send me your ideas. I'll gather a few of the best ideas and publish them in one of my upcoming columns. Mail your letter to Fred D'Ignazio, COMPUTE Publications, 324 West Wendover Avenue, Greensboro, North Carolina 27408.
Meanwhile, be on the lookout for real computer agents living inside your machine. According to software publishers, agents will be designed into most of the new computer programs reaching the market in the future. When you buy a piece of software, you'll get a free, built-in agent along with it!