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Interact: CMU Robotics Institute developing communication tools for cars that can warn of traffic jams and map out alternative routes

Sunday, May 27, 2001

By Stephanie Franken, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

CMU Robotics Institute developing communication tools for cars that can warn of traffic jams and map out alternative routes

Any driver who's had a collision or a near miss with a distracted cellular phone user knows that high-tech gadgets and the highway can be a dangerous combination.

Katia Sycara of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute is the head research scientist for the Intelligent Software Agents Group, which is developing the personal agent technology. The device could be a helpful tool for managing a stock portfolio or driving because it can scan Web sites, radio stations and police frequencies. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

But communications tools for tomorrow's cars, under development at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, will be safer -- and smarter. In some ways, they'll be smarter than the drivers themselves.

The institute has developed Intelligent Software Agents that function like personal assistants because they're capable of processing information and even learning. Commonly known as intelligent or personal agents, the software can communicate with cell phones and e-mail accounts, as well as other agents.

Responsive to voice commands from a driver, a personal agent will allow a driver to keep both hands on the wheel while sending and receiving information. And the agent is smart enough to learn from the driver and anticipate the type of information he or she wants to receive, said Katia Sycara, head research scientist for the institute's Intelligent Software Agents Group, which developed the technology.

Major car and truck manufacturers are researching intelligent agent technology, and one of them is in discussions with CMU about using its version, Sycara said.

Intelligent agents can allow a driver to contact a friend's cell phone by voice command to say, "I'll be 10 minutes late for lunch."

But they also can prevent the driver from being late in the first place -- by learning of a traffic jam ahead by tapping into Web sites, radio stations and even police frequencies that monitor traffic and advising the driver to take an alternate route to the restaurant.

Last week, when Sycara was driving back to Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C., she wished the technology she's working on were in her car already. As she waited in a huge traffic jam, she learned -- too late -- that she should have exited the highway already because the road up ahead had been closed.

"If I had known in time, obviously, I would have made different choices," she said.

Because they'll make life easier for people, it won't be long before intelligent agents take up residence in cars but also in many other places to aid humans in everyday tasks.

The agents work by functioning as intermediaries between the driver and a number of devices that receive and deliver information, including other agents. And because they are capable of understanding and translating a number of software or Web languages, intelligent agents will be able to take the advice: "Contact Shelly Johnson" and then go find her -- whether she's on her cell phone, her Palm Pilot or her computer at work.

CMU's intelligent agents can be used in other situations besides navigating highways. They also have caught the interest of bankers and money managers, Sycara said.

"There are some large financial institutions in town that are interested ... in having agents that look at various sources of financial information and then make recommendations with respect to financial decisions."

Come again? Nonhumans making recommendations about real people's finances?

To Sycara, the prospect isn't frightening because the humans remain in control.

Her group has developed a demonstration project that it calls Warren -- short for the famed billionaire investor, Warren Buffett.

Warren uses agent technology to learn about an investor's current holdings and his or her tolerance for risk.

Programmed to seek out information about the investor's stock portfolio and act on that information -- such as news that a company's stock price has dropped too low -- Warren does only exactly what a person has programmed it to do. But because its full-time job is scanning the Web for relevant news about companies in an investor's portfolio, it can do a more thorough job than the investor herself.

Once the technology is perfected, Warren will be able to make purchases on an investor's behalf, Sycara said.

Although the technology has not been licensed, a high-level Microsoft executive recently paid a visit to the CMU group that is developing Warren and other intelligent agents, said Barbara Pearson, associate dean for external relations in the School of Computer Science.

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