MSFT research to build platform for agents and bots

Max More (
Thu, 04 Jun 1998 13:35:22 -0700

Ready to have an intelligent conversation with your computer? Programs with
personality could become the backbone of the next generation of computer

(05/29/98; 6:53 p.m. ET)
By John Borland, TechWeb
On the floor of a virtual auto showroom, a customer is intercepted by a
saleswoman dressed in a red and white jumpsuit. "It's a pleasure to see you,"
she says, as she reminisces about her own racing history and prompts the
customer to respond with information about his or her own background. She uses
this information to recommend a particular car as a starting point for the
shopping trip.
Meet Extempo Systems' Jennifer James, one of the early "believable-agent" or
lifelike characters to reach the Web marketplace. She and other digital
cousins, most of whom still reside in industry and university labs, represent
the latest results of research into making software that thinks for itself.
Believable-agent programs like this are designed to create an illusion of
personality that goes beyond the inflexible script of a cartoon. Programmers
seek to create characters that appear engaging and responsive, although
limitations in language recognition and other technologies still keep most of
the programs frustratingly far from being genuinely lifelike.
Still, the creators of these synthetic personalities have grand ambitions for
their progeny. Programmers in the field predict characters with personality
some rudimentary empathy will become the backbone of the next generation of
computer interfaces, both online and offline. The next evolutionary step for
computers is to make the human-machine interaction a social experience, they
"I think it's a question of when, not if," said Gene Bell, a senior researcher
at Microsoft. Bell is working on some of the technologies the company hopes
will push lifelike agents toward commercial viability, such as speech and
natural-language recognition. Once these component technologies are widespread
-- and perhaps integrated into operating systems -- then the spread of social
interfaces will be a natural step, he says.

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