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Dictionary definition: agent (ay­gent) n. something that produces or is capable of producing an effect: an active or efficient cause. one who acts for or in the place of another by authority from him ... a means or instrument by which a guiding intelligence achieves a result. .

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agent definition
Dictionary definition: agent (ay­gent) n.

something that produces or is capable of producing an effect: an active or efficient cause.

one who acts for or in the place of another by authority from him ...

a means or instrument by which a guiding intelligence achieves a result.

Agent definition
agent definition1
Computer Science definition:

An agent is a computer system, situated in some environment, that is capable of flexible autonomous action in order to meet its design objectives. (Jennings, Sycara, Wooldridge 1998)

This definition embraces three key concepts:


The agent receives sensory input from its environment and it can perform actions which change the environment in some way.



Agent definition
Dictionary definitions:

Autonomy : self­determined freedom, especially moral independence.

Autonomous: self­governing, independent.

Agent definition

The system should be able to act without the direct intervention of humans (or other agents). The system should have control over its own actions and internal state.

Example: Autonomous navigation

Sometimes used in a stronger sense to mean systems that are capable of learning from experience.

examples of existing situated autonomous computer systems
any process control system: monitor real­world environment and perform actions to modify it as conditions change (typically in real­time),

simple ­ thermostats,

very complex ­ nuclear reactor control systems.

software deamons: monitor software environment and perform actions to modify the environment as conditions change,

UNIX xbiff program, monitors a user's incoming mail and displays an icon when new mail is detected.

However, these systems are not capable of flexible action in order to meet their design objectives.

Examples of existing situated, autonomous computer systems

agents should not simply act in response to their environment, they should be able to exhibit opportunistic, goal­directed behaviour and take the initiative where appropriate;


agents should be able to interact, when appropriate, with other artificial agents and humans in order to complete their own problem solving and to help others with their activities.


agents should perceive their environment and respond in a timely fashion to changes that occur in it;

Agents may have other characteristics, e.g. mobility, adaptability, but those given here are the distinguishing features of an agent.

the road to intelligent agents
Agents have their root in traditional AI

Also builds on contributions from other long established fields:

object­oriented programming

concurrent object­based systems

human­computer interface design

Historically AI researchers tended to focus on different components of intelligent behaviour, e.g. learning, reasoning, problem solving, vision understanding.

The assumption seemed to be that progress was more likely to be made if these aspects of intelligent behaviour were studied in isolation.

The road to intelligent agents
ai development stages
Phase 1: formal, structured problems with well defined boundaries (block worlds, game playing, symbol manipulation, reasoning, theorem proving)

Combination to create integrated AI systems was assumed to be straightforward.

Phase 2: expert systems; building on domain-specific knowledge for specialist problems

Rule-based systems

Phase 3: specialised areas such as vision, speech, natural language processing, robot control, data mining

Mainly sensory data

Intelligent agents seen currently as the main integrating force

AI development stages
rational agents
The right action is the one that makes the agent the most successful

Need measures of success

E.g. pick the most points, make the least number of moves, minimise power consumption, etc.

Rationality depends on performance measures, prior knowledge, actions, event history

For each possible event sequence, the rational agent should select an action that is expected to maximise its performance measure, given the evidence provided by the event sequence and the built-in knowledge the agent has.

Important: rationality maximises expected performance, not actual (we cannot tell the future)

Rational agents
rational agents1
Rational agents should

Perform information gathering and exploration

Learn from past events

Be autonomous

Requires learning

Start with built-in reflexes/knowledge, create new behaviour based on learnt experience

Rational agents
how to design an intelligent agent
An agent perceives its environment via sensors and acts in that environment with its effectors.

Hence, an agent gets percepts one at a time, and maps this percept sequence to actions (one action at a time)



Interacts with other agents plus the environment

Reactive to the environment

Pro-active (goal-directed)

How to design an intelligent agent?
an agent and its environment








An agentandits environment
examples of agents in different types of applications

Agent type





Medical diagnosis system

Symptoms, findings, patient's answers

Questions, tests, treatments

Healthy patients, minimize costs

Patient, hospital

Satellite image analysis system

Pixels of varying intensity, color

Print a categorization of scene

Correct categorization

Images from orbiting satellite

Part-picking robot

Pixels of varying intensity

Pick up parts and sort into bins

Place parts in correct bins

Conveyor belts with parts

Refinery controller

Temperature, pressure readings

Open, close valves; adjust temperature

Maximize purity, yield, safety


Interactive English tutor

Typed words

Print exercises, suggestions, corrections

Maximize student's score on test

Set of students

Examples of agents in different types of applications
agent s strategy
Agent’s strategy is a mapping from percept sequence to action

How to encode an agent’s strategy?

Long list of what should be done for each possible percept sequence

vs. shorter specification (e.g. algorithm)

Agent’s strategy
skeleton agent
Skeleton Agent

function SKELETON-AGENT (percept) returns action

static: memory, the agent’s memory of the world

memory UPDATE-MEMORY(memory,percept)

action  CHOOSE-BEST-ACTION(memory)

memory  UPDATE-MEMORY(memory, action)


On each invocation, the agent’s memory is updated to reflect the new percept, the best action is chosen, and the fact that the action was taken is also stored in the memory. The memory persists from one invocation to the next.

examples of how the agent function can be implemented
Table-driven agent

Simple reflex agent

Reflex agent with internal state

Agent with explicit goals

Utility-based agent

Examples of how the agent function can be implemented



table driven agent
Table-driven agent

function TABLE-DRIVEN-AGENT (percept) returns action

static: percepts, a sequence, initially empty

table, a table, indexed by percept sequences, initially fully specified

append percept to the end of percepts

action LOOKUP(percepts, table)

return action

An agent based on a prespecified lookup table. It keeps track of percept sequence and just looks up the best action

  • Problems
    • Huge number of possible percepts (consider an automated taxi with a camera as the sensor) => lookup table would be huge
    • Takes long time to build the table
    • Not adaptive to changes in the environment; requires entire table to be updated if changes occur
simple reflex agent
Differs from the lookup table based agent in that the condition (that determines the action) is already higher-level interpretation of the percepts

Percepts could be e.g. the pixels on the camera of the automated taxi

Simple reflex agent

Simple Reflex Agent


What the world is like now


What action I should do now

Condition - action rules


function SIMPLE-REFLEX-AGENT(percept) returns action

static: rules, a set of condition-action rules

state  INTERPRET-INPUT (percept)

rule  RULE-MATCH (state,rules)

action  RULE-ACTION [rule]


First match.

No further matches sought.

Only one level of deduction.

A simple reflex agent works by finding a rule whose condition matches the current situation (as defined by the percept) and then doing the action associated with that rule.

simple reflex agent1
Table lookup of condition-action pairs defining all possible condition-action rules necessary to interact in an environment

e.g. if car-in-front-is-breaking then initiate breaking


Table is still too big to generate and to store (e.g. taxi)

Takes long time to build the table

No knowledge of non-perceptual parts of the current state

Not adaptive to changes in the environment; requires entire table to be updated if changes occur

Looping: Can’t make actions conditional

Simple reflex agent…
reflex agent with internal state



How the world evolves

What the world is like now

What my actions do


What action I should do now

Condition - action rules


Reflex Agent with Internal State
reflex agent with internal state1
Reflex Agent with Internal State …

function REFLEX-AGENT-WITH-STATE (percept) returns action

static: state, a description of the current world state

rules, a set of condition-action rules

state  UPDATE-STATE (state, percept)

rule  RULE-MATCH (state, rules)

action  RULE-ACTION [rule]

state  UPDATE-STATE (state, action)


A reflex agent with internal state works by finding a rule whose condition matches the current situation (as defined by the percept and the stored internal state) and then doing the action associated with that rule.

reflex agent with internal state2
Encode “internal state of the world to remember the past as contained in earlier percepts

Needed because sensors do no usually give the entire state of the world at each input, so perception of the environment is captured over time.

Requires ability to represent change in the world with/without the agent

one possibility is to represent just the latest state, but then cannot reason about hypothetical courses of action

Reflex Agent with Internal State …
agent with explicit goals



How the world evolves

What the world is like now

What my actions do


What it will be like if I do action A

What action I should do now



Agent with Explicit Goals
agent with explicit goals1
Choose actions so as to achieve a (given or computed) goal = a description of desirable situations. e.g. where the taxi wants to go

Keeping track of the current state is often not enough – need to add goals to decide which situations are good

Deliberative instead of reactive

May have to consider long sequences of possible actions before deciding if goal is achieved – involves considerations of the future, “what will happen if I do…?” (search and planning)

More flexible than reflex agent. (e.g. rain / new destination)

In the reflex agent, the entire database of rules would have to be rewritten

Agent with Explicit Goals
utility based agent



How the world evolves

What the world is like now

What my actions do

What it will be like if I do action A


How happy I will be in such as a state


What action I should do now


Utility-Based Agent
utility based agent1
When there are multiple possible alternatives, how to decide which one is best?

A goal specifies a crude destination from an unhappy to a happy state, but often need a more general performance measure that describes “degree of happiness”

Utility function U: State  Reals indicating a measure of success or happiness when at a given state

Allows decisions comparing

choice between conflicting goals

choice between likelihood of success and importance of goal (if achievement is uncertain)

Utility-Based Agent
environments accessible vs inaccessible
An accessible environment is one in which the agent can obtain complete, accurate, up-to-date information about the environment’s state

Most moderately complex environments (including, for example, the everyday physical world and the Internet) are inaccessible

The more accessible an environment is, the simpler it is to build agents to operate in it

Environments – Accessible vs. Inaccessible
environments deterministic vs non deterministic
A deterministic environment is one in which any action has a single guaranteed effect — there is no uncertainty about the state that will result from performing an action

Subjective non-determinism

Limited memory (poker)

Too complex environment to model directly (weather, dice)


The physical world can to all intents and purposes be regarded as non-deterministic

Non-deterministic environments present greater problems for the agent designer

Environments –Deterministic vs. Non-deterministic
environments episodic vs non episodic
The agent’s experience is divided into independent “episodes,” each episode consisting of agent perceiving and then acting. Quality of action depends just on the episode itself, because subsequent episodes do not depend on what actions occur in previous episodes.  Do not need to think ahead

Episodic environments are simpler from the agent developer’s perspective because the agent can decide what action to perform based only on the current episode — it need not reason about the interactions between this and future episodes

Environments - Episodic vs. Non-episodic
environments static vs dynamic
A static environment is one that can be assumed to remain unchanged except by the performance of actions by the agent

A dynamic environment is one that has other processes operating on it, and which therefore changes in ways beyond the agent’s control

Other processes can interfere with the agent’s actions (as in concurrent systems theory)

The physical world is a highly dynamic environment

Environments - Static vs. Dynamic
environments discrete vs continuous
An environment is discrete if there are a fixed, finite number of actions and percepts in it

A chess game is an example of a discrete environment, and taxi driving as an example of a continuous one

Continuous environments have a certain level of mismatch with computer systems

Discrete environments could in principle be handled by a kind of “lookup table”

Environments – Discrete vs. Continuous







Chess with a clock






Chess without a clock


















Taxi driving






Medical diagnosis system






Image-analysis system






Part-picking robot






Refinery controller






Interactive English tutor






agents and objects
Are agents just objects by another name?


encapsulates some state

communicates via message passing

has methods, corresponding to operations that may be performed on this state

Agents and Objects
agents and objects1
Main differences:

agents are autonomous:

agents embody stronger notion of autonomy than objects, and in particular, they decide for themselves whether or not to perform an action on request from another agent

agents are smart:

capable of flexible (reactive, pro-active, social) behavior, and the standard object model has nothing to say about such types of behavior

agents are active:

a multi-agent system is inherently multi-threaded, in that each agent is assumed to have at least one thread of active control

Agents and Objects
agents as intentional systems
When explaining human activity, it is often useful to make statements such as the following

Janine took her umbrella because she believed it was going to rain.

Michael worked hard because he wanted to possess a PhD.

These statements make use of a folk psychology, by which human behavior is predicted and explained through the attribution of attitudes, such as believing and wanting (as in the above examples), hoping, fearing, and so on

The attitudes employed in such folk psychological descriptions are called the intentional notions

Agents as Intentional Systems
agents as intentional systems1
The philosopher Daniel Dennett coined the term intentional system to describe entities ‘whose behavior can be predicted by the method of attributing belief, desires and rational acumen’

Dennett identifies different ‘grades’ of intentional system:

‘A first-order intentional system has beliefs and desires (etc.) but no beliefs and desires about beliefs and desires. …A second-order intentional system is more sophisticated; it has beliefs and desires (and no doubt other intentional states) about beliefs and desires (and other intentional states) — both those of others and its own’

Agents as Intentional Systems
agents as intentional systems3
McCarthy argued that there are occasions when the intentional stance is appropriate:Agents as Intentional Systems

‘To ascribe beliefs, free will, intentions, consciousness, abilities, or wants to a machine is legitimate when such an ascription expresses the same information about the machine that it expresses about a person. It is useful when the ascription helps us understand the structure of the machine, its past or future behavior, or how to repair or improve it. It is perhaps never logically required even for humans, but expressing reasonably briefly what is actually known about the state of the machine in a particular situation may require mental qualities or qualities isomorphic to them. Theories of belief, knowledge and wanting can be constructed for machines in a simpler setting than for humans, and later applied to humans. Ascription of mental qualities is most straightforward for machines of known structure such as thermostats and computer operating systems, but is most useful when applied to entities whose structure is incompletely known’.

agents as intentional systems4
What objects can be described by the intentional stance?

As it turns out, more or less anything can. . . consider a light switch:

But most adults would find such a description absurd!Why is this?

Agents as Intentional Systems

‘It is perfectly coherent to treat a light switch as a (very cooperative) agent with the capability of transmitting current at will, who invariably transmits current when it believes that we want it transmitted and not otherwise; flicking the switch is simply our way of communicating our desires’. (Yoav Shoham)

agents as intentional systems5
The answer seems to be that while the intentional stance description is consistent, . . . it does not buy us anything, since we essentially understand the mechanism sufficiently to have a simpler, mechanistic description of its behavior. (Yoav Shoham)

Put crudely, the more we know about a system, the less we need to rely on animistic, intentional explanations of its behavior

But with very complex systems, a mechanistic, explanation of its behavior may not be practicable

As computer systems become ever more complex, we need more powerful abstractions and metaphors to explain their operation — low level explanations become impractical. The intentional stance is such an abstraction

Agents as Intentional Systems
agents as intentional systems6
The intentional notions are thus abstraction tools, which provide us with a convenient and familiar way of describing, explaining, and predicting the behavior of complex systems

Remember: most important developments in computing are based on new abstractions:

procedural abstraction

abstract data types


Agents, and agents as intentional systems, represent a further, and increasingly powerful abstraction

So agent theorists start from the (strong) view of agents as intentional systems: one whose simplest consistent description requires the intentional stance

Agents as Intentional Systems
agents as intentional systems7
This intentional stance is an abstraction tool — a convenient way of talking about complex systems, which allows us to predict and explain their behavior without having to understand how the mechanism actually works

Now, much of computer science is concerned with looking for abstraction mechanisms (witness procedural abstraction, ADTs, objects,…)So why not use the intentional stance as an abstraction tool in computing — to explain, understand, and, crucially, program computer systems?

This is an important argument in favor of agents

Agents as Intentional Systems
agents as intentional systems8
3 Other points in favor of this idea:

Characterizing Agents:

It provides us with a familiar, non-technical way of understanding & explaining agents

Nested Representations:

It gives us the potential to specify systems that include representations of other systems

It is widely accepted that such nested representations are essential for agents that must cooperate with other agents

Agents as Intentional Systems
agents as intentional systems9
Post-Declarative Systems:

This view of agents leads to a kind of post-declarative programming:

In procedural programming, we say exactly what a system should do

In declarative programming, we state something that we want to achieve, give the system general info about the relationships between objects, and let a built-in control mechanism (e.g., goal-directed theorem proving) figure out what to do

With agents, we give a very abstract specification of the system, and let the control mechanism figure out what to do, knowing that it will act in accordance with some built-in theory of agency (e.g., the well-known Cohen-Levesque model of intention)

Agents as Intentional Systems
multiagent systems
A multiagent system is one that consists of a number of agents, which interact with one-another

In the most general case, agents will be acting on behalf of users with different goals and motivations

To successfully interact, they will require the ability to cooperate, coordinate, and negotiate with each other, much as people do

Multiagent Systems
agent design vs society design
There are two basic questions we ask when discussing agents

How do we build agents capable of independent, autonomous action, so that they can successfully carry out tasks we delegate to them?

How do we build agents that are capable of interacting (cooperating, coordinating, negotiating) with other agents in order to successfully carry out those delegated tasks, especially when the other agents cannot be assumed to share the same interests/goals?

The first problem is agent design, the second is society design (micro/macro)

Agent Design vs Society Design
multiagent systems1
In Multiagent Systems, we address questions such as:

How can cooperation emerge in societies of self-interested agents?

What kinds of languages can agents use to communicate?

How can self-interested agents recognize conflict, and how can they (nevertheless) reach agreement?

How can autonomous agents coordinate their activities so as to cooperatively achieve goals?

Multiagent Systems
multiagent systems2
While these questions are all addressed in part by other disciplines (notably economics and social sciences), what makes the multiagent systems field unique is that it emphasizes that the agents in question are computational, information processing entities.Multiagent Systems
multiagent research issues
How do you state your preferences to your agent?

How can your agent compare different deals from different vendors? What if there are many different parameters?

What algorithms can your agent use to negotiate with other agents (to make sure you get a good deal)?

These issues aren’t frivolous – automated procurement could be used massively by (for example) government agencies

Multiagent Research Issues
multiagents are interdisciplinary
The field of Multiagent Systems is influenced and inspired by many other fields:



Game Theory



Social Sciences

This can be both a strength (infusing well-founded methodologies into the field) and a weakness (there are many different views as to what the field is about)

This has analogies with artificial intelligence itself

Multiagents are Interdisciplinary
risky business
Jeopardy style trivia game

Players attempt to be the first to answer trivia questions in order to win virtual money and virtual prizes

Played in the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) world

Hosted by a computer agent named RobBot

Available 24/7.

”Risky Business”
what is irc
What is IRC

“IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is a virtual meeting place where people from all over the world can meet and talk; you'll find the whole diversity of human interests, ideas, and issues here, and you'll be able to participate in group discussions on one of the many thousands of IRC channels, on hundreds of IRC networks, or just talk in private to family or friends, wherever they are in the world.”

mIRC Homepage (

Has knowledge of

IRC commands

How the game is played

Rules and etiquette to maintain the channel

Techniques for self-preservation within the IRC environment

Human operators are capable of ”correcting” the game

Keeps records of individual player statistics

Number of games won

High scores

All knowledge must be input by human operator.

risky sample i
Risky Sample I

<RobBot> Current category: Footwear. Question Value: 800.

<RobBot> Question 5 of 30: Low cut woman's shoe or a device to pass gasoline

<BrandEx> rob pump

<Texmex> rob pump

<RobBot> brandex: That is CORRECT! You win 800. Your total is -300.

<RobBot> Please wait while preparing the next Gullivers Travels question...

<jennew> brand rocks!

<RobBot> Current category: Gullivers Travels. Question Value: 400.

<RobBot> Category Comment: Trivia about Gullivers Travels

risky sample ii
Risky Sample II

<RobBot> Question 6 of 30: The only thing the Laputian king wanted to learn about the outside world

<Texmex> oh this one sux

<Mach> what food do you like rob

<RobBot> Pass the ho-ho's!

<Mach> rob mathematics

<MastrLion> rob flug

<RobBot> mastrlion: Bzzt! That is incorrect. You lose 400. Your total is -500.

<RobBot> mach: That is CORRECT! You win 400. Your total is 400.

risky features
RobBot recognizes text prefaced by ”Rob” as input relating to the game

Most player input is either commands or an answer to a trivia question

RobBot can also respond to text which is not an answer

In response to question of food RobBot makes a comment about Ho-Ho’s.

This type of reply helps establish RobBots personality

Maybe he is a junk-food addict

Players socialize with each other during the game

Texmex comments on how he dislikes the current category

Jennew praises BrandEx for answering a question correctly

Risky Features
robbot as agent
Relevant characteristics of an intelligent agent




Risk and trust

Graceful degradation




Entertainment and social needs

Each of these can be interpreted as facilitators for a social setting

RobBot as Agent
robbot as agent1

RobBot hosts game without human intervention

Despite serious neglect at times by the creators, the game has continued to run and flourish on its own

Must be able to run independently if it is to have any value in terms of entertainment or social interaction

If human operator must constantly provide direction, RobBot would become a tool of the human rather than a separate entity

RobBot as Agent
robbot as agent2

Some degree of dependence on humans is important from both technical and sociological viewpoint

Dependence invokes a sense of responsibility and power in the human operator

RobBot as Agent
robbot as agent3

RobBot maintains his own personality through the responses programmed into his lexicon

Life-like qualities help to provide an atmosphere that is inducive to socialization

He is capable of recording information about other users

Scores that players have obtained

Player’s scores and record are important measures of social status on the gaming channels

RobBot as Agent
robbot as agent4
Risk and Trust, Graceful Degradation

RobBot does make errors while conducting the game

Players may phrase an answer differently than the answer stored in the answer database

Spellling errors may be present in the answer database

Sometimes human operators are present to correct errors but usually not

Sometimes errors are found humorous by players

Sometimes players band together to curse RobBot for his errors

Both cases encourage socialization among the players

RobBot as Agent
robbot as agent5

Player and agent cooperation is crucial to the game

RobBot does not question players

But, provides feedback to verify that command requests are being processed

Even the primitive type of cooperation provided encourages socialization between players and RobBot

RobBot as Agent
robbot as agent6

RobBot relies heavily on anthropomorphism to accomplish his tasks as a game show host

Main task is to provide entertainment as a game show host

Not to pass the Turing Test!

Technology based on keyword mappings and canned phrases gets RobBot remarkably far in fulfilling his main task

RobBot as Agent
robbot as social engineer
Agent supports the sociological features necessary for an on-going social environment

As a core group of players engage in Risky Business, the network becomes meaningfully ritualized in its context

A subculture is formed that can be transmitted to new players

Components of a subculture include

Contextual stability

Shared language, history, and purpose

These lead to mutually shared

norms (behavior patterns)

Values (common goals)

Agent’s main task is to support and encourage development of the subculture.

RobBot as Social Engineer
robbot as social engineer1



Stable structure

Rules basically stay the same from day to day and month to month

Responses that exist to the game environment can be learned and become predictable

Stable structure helps facilitate the development of a social history of the game-playing environment

RobBot as Social Engineer
robbot as social engineer2
Personality and Anthropomorphism

Lead to the development of a shared language

Bot typically utters certains phrases

Used by participants as symbols of events and concepts

Bot’s consistency of phrasing leads to players acceptance and standardization of language

When RobBot consistently expresses delight about chocolate via *choco* all participants can use *choco* as a keyword for joy

RobBot as Social Engineer
robbot as social engineer3
Personality and Anthropomorphism


RobBot has a set of canned responses for some players when he sees their names

E.g., in response to “Do you know Cass?”

“Hey! Cass is a real cutie! Woohoo!”

Players react strongly to these personalized messages

Often input questions that cause RobBot to frequently cycle through a small set of responses

Flattery from a computer agent appears to have a similar effect to flattery coming from a real person

RobBot as Social Engineer
robbot as social engineer4

Impact of gender

Change name from RobBot to ReneeBot + make minor changes in the vocabulary

Result is significant attitude changes towards the bot

RobBot is treated like a man

Players joke with him about stereotypical male things

Women flirt with him

Players can be brusque and treat him rudely

ReneeBot is treated differently

Men flirt with her

Players treat her more politely

RobBot as Social Engineer
robbot as social engineer5

Helps shape behavior patterns of players

Reinforces a definition of social order

E.g., swearing is frowned upon

Any player using certain utterances will get

“<Player 1> This is a family channel! Be warned or I’ll have to call the bouncers!”

Persistence will get the player kicked off the channel

E.g., in another game, Acro, bot provides no guidance on coarse language

Result is that it is a common feature of the players

There was a morality play between certain players

Eventually those who could deal with occasional vulgarity stopped playing

RobBot as Social Engineer
bots the bigger picture
Many people who cross the boundary from the real world to the Internet world are not prepared to make too great of a leap

As the numbers of such people increase, they acquire the power to demand familiar institutions from the real world that cater to the social animal



Dating services


Bots – The Bigger Picture
bots the bigger picture1
One role of AI in the cyberspace world is to provide a familiar interface to the participants

RobBot’s AI (minimal as it is) creates a persona to which people can relate

He is something understood and nonthreatening

He plays an essential part in acclimatizing people to the world of the internet

With more and better AI, the line between user and software artifcat would become more blurred

Bots – The Bigger Picture