Brussels, Oct 2005
A roadmap which suggests how agent-based computing could develop over the next decade has been launched, presenting a vision of the development of this technology, its application areas and likely barriers to adoption. Convergence with existing and emerging industrial technologies should be a priority, according to the paper.
An agent is an embedded computer system that is situated in a dynamic, unpredictable and open environment, and capable of flexible autonomous action in this environment in order to meet its design objectives. Agent-based computing represents a new synthesis both for artificial intelligence (AI) and, more generally, computer science. It is a significant area of interest for such application areas as telecommunications, information management and the Internet, electronic commerce and simulation. The successful adoption of agent technology in these areas is likely to have a profound impact both on the competitiveness and viability of European information technology (IT) industries, and also on the way in which future computer systems will be conceptualised and implemented.
AgentLink III is a one million euro European coordination action project funded by the European Commission under the information society technologies (IST) initiative within the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). It is intended to promote take-up and deployment of agent-based computing. It follows on from the work of two previous projects, and as with its predecessors, the ultimate goals of AgentLink-III are to put European industry and research at the forefront of innovation and excellence in this increasingly important area by promoting European activities in the research, development, dissemination, and deployment of agent-based computing technologies.
Among AgentLink III's activities is the production of an AgentLink Technology Roadmap, an evolving document charting the development, innovations and future of agent technology. Professor Michael Luck from the University School of Electronics & Computer Science (ECS) at the University of Southampton in the UK coordinated the creation of the report, aimed at informing the various audiences of the current state-of-the-art and to postulate the likely future directions the technology and the field will take. This information is critical for commercial organisations to best target their investments in the technology and its deployment, and also for policy makers to identify and support areas of particular importance.
'Agent technologies are a natural extension of current component-based approaches,' states Professor Luck. 'They underpin many new areas of computing so it's important to know where and how they fit in. Areas such as grid computing, virtual organisations and eBusiness are converging with more mature technologies such as P2P and web services to form open systems, which are so dynamic and unpredictable that only agents can deal with their complexity.'
The roadmap describes current research initiatives and deployment of agent technologies and presents the challenges ahead posed by new grid computing and web technologies. After defining agent technologies and establishing the distinction between these and other programming technologies on the basis of their differing objectives, the roadmap analyses the technological context, the emerging trends and critical drivers.
It concludes that how quickly agent technology is adopted by software developers will depend on how many application domains require systems with these characteristics. The current domains receiving attention from agent software development companies are logistics, transportation, utility management and defence. Common characteristics of these domains are multiple stakeholders or organisations linked in a network and with mission-critical, real-time processing requirements: agent technologies can bridge the divide for both functional and technical requirements for these applications.
On supporting tools and methodologies, the roadmap underlines a fundamental obstacle to the take-up of agent technology: the current lack of mature software development methodologies for agent-based systems. Another key challenge for agent-based computing is drawing on insights gained from proven methods in order to augment the existing solutions to suit the differing demands of the new paradigm.
In application terms, the roadmap enumerates the current deployment of agent-like systems in the areas of pervasive computing, the Semantic Web, P2P networks. For the longer term, the authors expect to see the industrial development of infrastructures for building highly scalable applications comprising pre-existing agents that must be organised or orchestrated. The roadmap warns that making the transition from research laboratory to deployed industrial applications represents a challenge, and insists on the need to make scientifically sound business cases for implementations and descriptions that work as catalysers both for industry adoption and for further research.
For commercial and industrial systems, agent technologies must emerge from the laboratory with a focus on business issues, on quality and on convergence with existing and emerging industrial technologies rather than innovation. Safety, reliability and traditional software quality measures are equally important, and must all be addressed to achieve wider adoption. Approaches by which existing systems can be upgraded with a successively increased agent presence without disruption should be a priority for a smooth transition.
Ultimately, says the document, the adoption of agent technologies in business environments will depend on how fast and how well agent technologies can be linked to existing and proven software and software methods. It is thus essential that agent technologies are targeted at those application domains to which they are best suited, in order to improve traditional techniques that should be used when agents are not applicable or appropriate. And this goal requires a commitment on the part of both business and research communities to collaborate effectively in support of more effective solutions for all.
According to the authors, 'this strategic technology roadmap is not intended as a prediction of the future. Instead, it is a reasoned analysis of the recent past and current state of agent technologies which has allowed us to present one possible development path for the technology. By doing this, we aim to identify the challenges and obstacles that will need to be overcome for progress to be made in research and development and for greater commercial adoption of the technology to occur.'