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Agents of change

Autonomous agents could one day play a key role in everything from setting market prices to creating more resilient networks

By Patrick Thibodeau
September 6, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Over the past year, NASA has been uploading software into the Earth Observing-1 satellite, turning it into a testbed for autonomous agents. The agents -- software programs that are able to learn and can function independently -- are used to manage experiments and operate the spacecraft.
The effort is part of a technology initiative that researchers say will reshape IT over the course of many years. Autonomous agents have the potential to become an extraordinarily powerful technology, with the capacity to learn, experiment and act independent of human control. Agents could ultimately improve productivity, increase software reliability and change the operation of markets, particularly supply chains.
Managing Complexity
NASA uses autonomous agents to handle tasks that appear simple but are actually quite complex. For example, one mission goal handled by autonomous agents is simply to not waste fuel. But accomplishing that means balancing multiple demands, such as staying on course and keeping experiments running, as well as dealing with the unexpected.
"What happens if you run out of power and you're on the dark side of the planet and the communications systems is having a problem? It's all those combinations that make life exciting," says Steve Chien, principal scientist for automated planning and scheduling at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Like many programs, agent software and related algorithms are often coded in Java. What makes them different is that the designs also incorporate disciplines such as game theory. Agent designers tend to draw from a variety of areas, such as economics and psychology, in an effort to create programs capable of handling complex interactions.

NASA's Earth Observing-1 satellite, which began operation in 2000, was recently turned into an autonomous agent testbed.
NASA's Earth Observing-1 satellite, which began operation in 2000, was recently turned into an autonomous agent testbed.
Image Credit: NASA
Programmers are adept at building systems that respond to a certain set of "if-then" circumstances. But NASA's agents are model-based, designed to achieve the goals and intentions of the designers, not merely to respond to a given event. That means they can react to unimagined events and still ensure that the spacecraft does not waste fuel while keeping to its mission.
At NASA, software agents are performing work previously handled by ground controllers. But the cost-saving potential of agents is something "we don't emphasize, because nobody likes their budget reduced," says Chien. Instead, the focus is on the additional scientific research created by the use of agent-based software.
Making markets, supply chains, telecommunications and other systems more efficient through the use of agents is a subject of intense interest. Some 800 researchers recently gathered at Columbia University for the Third International Joint Conference


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