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High-Tech Times Article 038

Blame It All On the Robots!

Welcome back to the High-Tech Times. The Internet has quietly taken over the jobs and routine tasks of what used to be the province of clerks, librarians, and information desks. And you can thank robots for these extra billions of freed-up man-hours.

But just what is a robot? The word is derived from the Czech word “robota,” which humorously enough means “drudgery.” Robots have populated science fiction novels for over 90 years. In the real world, robots have made their way into hospital operating rooms, auto factories, and even the surface of Mars. What differentiates the mechanical robot from programmable machines is that the robot uses sensory input to make independent decisions without operator actions. When I place my aircraft on automatic pilot, for example, it’s a robot that takes over, interpreting flight data and adjusting flaps, ailerons, and rudder to maintain the flight path.
The software robot is an entirely different animal. defines the term robot as “a program that runs automatically without human intervention. Typically, a robot is endowed with some artificial intelligence so that it can react to different situations it may encounter. Two common types of
robots are agents and spiders.” And it is these little autonomous beasties that make the Web such a useful place.
With somewhere between 320 million and 2.2 billion Web pages that can be indexed, finding anything except by accident takes some sophisticated help from our robotic helpers. When you access your favorite search engine to find your favorite song, game, or stock value, the search engine is not doing a real-time search of the Web to get your data (except in a very few cases). Instead, it is doing a search of files that have been found in the past by robots, spiders, or other crawlers.
You can think of a software robot as a curious animal that traverses the Web’s hypertext jungle, retrieving one document after another, and also retrieving any document or image that is referenced by the first document. Don’t be mislead into thinking that these robots actually move along the Web like a virus; a robot simply visits sites by requesting documents from them.
An agent is a more advanced type of Web-crawler that does travel between sites, deciding for themselves when to move and what to do. Agents are not as common as robots, but have a lot more flexibility. An intelligent agent is a program that helps users with things, such as choosing a product, or guiding a user through form filling, or even helping users find things. Internet browsers are also called “user-agents,” as they are programs that perform networking tasks for a user.
A more advanced version of search technology involves the use of natural language processing. The “Ask Jeeves” robot <> is the most famous of these, with over seven million questions and answers written by people. If the answer it provides isn’t useful, Ask Jeeves also queries and provides links to Web-sites that may provide the requested information.
Intelligent service agents act as substitutes for information desks. The most familiar form of this technology is interactive voice-recognition (IVR) offered via the telephone, where the caller selects from a menu of items and gets a voice recording of the information, and may also be transferred to an appropriate department, if needed. A step up from a recorded-voice system is a telephone-based system that searches a database for an answer, and uses a synthesized voice to provide the information.
The newest intelligent service agents combine a search engine and a natural-language robot. These agents answer common questions in a conversational way. If the agent doesn’t understand the query, it asks for clarification. For example, if I were to ask “How do I write my State Senator,” the robot would ask where I live to determine the answer. If it cannot give an acceptable answer, it may transfer the caller to a human agent, or tell the user where to call. These types of robots are also used to answer e-mail. They can scan thousands of incoming messages, decide which ones are spam (and delete them), which one are routine queries (and answer them), and forward the remainder to an employee for handling.
There are several additional robots to handle specialized tasks. Update bots periodically search specified Web-sites or files and report back on any changes. Shop bots are primarily used for business-to-consumer transactions, but can also be adapted to obtain the best prices for goods and services. Data-management bots simplify the process of filling out forms; other varieties of these robots mine data from the Web and produce summaries.
Many software products incorporate bots which are concealed as other functions. Programs such as Microsoft FrontPage and Adobe GoLive allow the user to create spectacular Web-pages without knowing how to write a single line of HTML code. You work in a WYSIWYG GUI, while the program creates the code in the background.
There are thousands of Web-sites giving information on robots and artificial intelligence, as well as hundreds of free bots that can be downloaded. Two places to start are BotSpot <> and WebCrawler’s Web Robots Database <>.
There used to be a big concern that robots would replace people and put them out of work. But as technology develops, people are instead freed from performing many repetitive tasks. And bots can often assist with ideas and projects that were never done because of time considerations.
Just because Deep Blue was able to defeat chess Grand Master Garry Kasparov in 1997 doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be taking advantages of the many times when bots can help you. Select them carefully and train them well, and robots will make your life a whole lot easier!
See you next month.