What our noggins do far better than today’s fastest supercomputers is “pattern recognition,” allowing us to remember faces or appreciate the beauty of a sunset. Kurzweil boldly predicts that 30 years from now common computers will have this capability and others, including consciousness and the ability to have emotional and even spiritual experiences.
Judging by the most visible application of artificial intelligence today–intelligent agents–I wouldn’t bet my PC on this. Intelligent agents are software routines designed to retrieve the information you need and perform actions for you based on that information automatically. Also called bots (as in robots), intelligent agents are fascinating in their potential, less so in their current incarnation.
Although bots today can perform research, chat with you, gather news, play games with you, and track stocks, many of the most popular are used by consumers and businesses for comparison shopping over the Web. There are dozens to choose from. Like search sites, which use similar technology, most bots are free.
Shopping bots work simply enough. You type in the product or brand you’re interested in, and the bot tries to find Web merchants offering it at the lowest price. Then you surf to the merchant’s site. I’ve used bots to shop for some time now, more or less successfully.
One problem is that most bots offer only product pricing information, ignoring the other factors, such as a site’s ease of navigation, product quality, warranty, service, shipping charges, delivery time, and whether the product is in stock. Nothing will sour you faster on bots than going to a site a bot suggests only to find, after filling out a detailed order form, that excessive shipping costs make the product more expensive than at other sites.
Sometimes bots don’t perform as advertised. The price a bot lists may not be the same as the price the Web merchant’s actual selling price. Or the lowest price the bot turns up may be higher than what you’d pay in person at your local Wal-Mart.
Regarding bargain hunting, just as in the off-line world, it’s good practice to be wary of a Web merchant offering a price significantly below the norm. Opt instead for sites offering a competitive price along with indications that your shopping experience will be trouble-free.
Another problem is that bots typically aren’t comprehensive. It’s not always their fault. Some shopping sites block bots from accessing their pricing information for fear of diminishing their brand image. But bots are often selective in which shopping sites they’ll search and list. Some list results first from sites they have marketing affiliations with, then from nonaffiliated sites. Others list results only from their affiliated sites. For these and other reasons, sometimes you can’t find products you know are out there.
Still, the best bots today, used judiciously, can save you money over retail without your having to leave the comfortable perch in front of your PC. Examples include general-interest bots such as mySimon at www.mysimon.com, Yahoo Shopping at http://shopping.yahoo.com, and Bottomdollar.com at www.bottomdollar, com and specialized bots such as CNET Shopper at www.shopper.com, MortgageQuotes.com at www.mortgagequotes.com, and InsWeb at www.insweb.com.
Right now, all bots can typically do is try to find good deals for you. You have to do the rest. Work is under way though on interactive bots that can, for instance, negotiate price and other variables and place orders without your involvement. For more information on bots in general, check out BotSpot at www.botspot.com.
Bots, or intelligent agents, will certainly get smarter, as will information technology as a whole. Whether computers will outsmart us is a question that will be answered only as the future boots up.