ERCIM News No.25 - April 1996 - CNR

An Agent-Based Approach for Interacting with the Web

by Amedeo Cesta, Daniela D'Aloisi, Vittorio Giannini

The current wide diffusion of Web sites means that they are accessible to different kinds of users with different levels of expertise and awareness on the usage of network resources. At the same time, the quantity of tools and information accessible is dramatically increasing, making their manipulation difficult and time-consuming. In order to facilitate access to the Web, interfaces should provide facilities to support users in dealing with complex tasks, to perform repetitive and time-consuming operations automatically, and to better exploit tools and services obtainable through the network. A promising approach is the use of software agents.

In a collaboration between the Istituto di Psicologia (IP-CNR) and the Fondazione Ugo Bordoni (FUB), Rome, we are now designing intelligent interfaces which should help users to manage new network technologies by delegating tasks to or being helped by software agents. The aim is to allow different kinds of users to access the Web resources in an effective and efficient way.

There are two main lines of development:

Implementing Active Interfaces

The interface must not be just a passive actor in the interaction but must assume a proponent role, actively supporting the users according to their needs. The interfaces must: Designing Distributed and Agent-Oriented Architectures

The implementation must exploit recent progress in related technologies. In particular, the interfaces should: The software agent technique allows an incremental development of complex architectures and offers a uniform language to interface different modules. An integrated environment has been developed in which an Interface Agent interacts with the users, translating their requests and connecting them with other local or remote agents and then presenting them with the results. The Interface Agent is also in charge of defining the information needs of the user by observing their behaviour and thus deducing the type of support needed. The connection with other agents is user-transparent.

The other kinds of agents are: An example of application of the general framework is the Info Agent, a multi-agent system that helps users to manage information coming from their work environment and from the Web. The Info Agent's task is to assist the user in retrieving documents and other types of items in repositories, archives and databases accessible through the network. The ultimate aim of this agent is to disengage the user as far as possible from knowing: Since the Interface Agent is able to reason about the user's requests, it contacts the Info Agent when users need its services and translates their requests. The agent's architecture consists of two sub-agents ­p; the Local Retriever and the External Retriever ­p; each devoted to a particular aspect of the problem. There is an interactive stage between the Interface Agent, the user and the other two agents in order to select the set of documents that most satisfy the initial query.

The Local Retriever knows the structure of the archives available in a given organisation: it is in charge of retrieving scientific and administrative data. The External Retriever agent is in charge of retrieving documents on the network. It can work in two modes: retrieval (or query) mode and surfing mode.

In the first case, it searches for a specific document: this service is activated by a direct request from the user. The agent uses a user model and the user's past history to refine the set of retrieved documents so that their content most reflects the user's needs. In the second case, the agent navigates the network searching for documents that could interest the user. The search is driven by a user's profile built and maintained by the Interface Agent. At the beginning, the Interface Agent uses a setting introduced by the user; this profile is then refined according to how the user manages the data found/proposed by the agent.

Both the External and the Local Retriever utilise the same software tool to perform their search: it is a public-domain software called Harvest, an integrated set of tools to gather, extract, organise, search, cache and replicate relevant information across the Internet.

Other search methods or systems can also be provided to be used alone or along with Harvest; this is one of the advantages of the modular and distributed architecture of the system framework and its immersion in the Web world.

The Info Agent system is part of an integrated environment in which traditional software tools are interfaced with agent-technologies to flexibly support the user in repetitive and tedious office type tasks.

Please contact:
Amedeo Cesta - IP-CNR
Tel: +39 6 86090-209
Daniela D'Aloisi, Vittorio Giannini - Fondazione Ugo Bordoni
Tel: +39 6 54803422
E-mail: {dany, gvittori}

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