What are agents?

by Stephen M. Walker II, Co-Founder / CEO

What are agents?

In the field of artificial intelligence (AI), an agent is an entity that perceives its environment and takes actions autonomously to achieve its goals. It can be as simple as a thermostat or as complex as a human being. An agent can be described as anything that perceives its environment through sensors and acts upon that environment through actuators. A rational agent is one that acts to maximize the expected value of a performance measure based on past experience and knowledge.

Agentic behavior, on the other hand, refers to the actions taken by an agent to achieve its goals. This behavior can emerge from general intelligent systems, but it's not necessarily required for an agent to exhibit intelligence. For instance, GPT, a powerful AI system, appears to be systematically myopic and non-agentic, yet it plans how words can fit into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into stories, which is a form of agentic behavior.

There are different types of intelligent agents, each defined by their range of functions, capabilities, and degree of intelligence. These include:

  • Simple reflex agents: These agents function in a current state, ignoring past history. Their responses are based on the event-condition-action rule.
  • Model-based reflex agents: These agents have a more comprehensive view of their environments. A model of the world is programmed into their internal system that incorporates the agent's history.
  • Goal-based agents: Also referred to as rational agents, these agents expand on the information that model-based agents store by also including goal information or information about desirable situations.
  • Utility-based agents: These agents provide an extra utility measurement that rates each possible scenario on its desired result, and then choose the action that maximizes the outcome.
  • Learning agents: These agents have the ability to gradually improve and become more knowledgeable about an environment over time through an additional learning algorithm or element.

Verification and validation of agentic behavior are important research priorities in efforts to reduce risks associated with the creation of general artificial intelligence. However, determining whether an agent meets any particular standard is not computable. The decision problem as stated is not computable for such agents due to more fundamental reasons.

In summary, agents and agentic behavior are fundamental concepts in AI, representing the entities that act and the actions they take, respectively, to achieve their goals. Understanding these concepts is crucial for the development and management of AI systems.

What is agentic behavior?

Agentic behavior refers to actions that express agency or control on one's own behalf or on behalf of another. It is often associated with self-directed actions aimed at personal growth and development based on self-chosen goals. In the context of psychology, agentic behavior can also refer to a state where a person obeys authority, a concept introduced in Milgram's theory.

Agentic behavior is not exclusive to humans. It can also be observed in artificial intelligence systems. However, it's important to note that while agentic behavior can emerge from general intelligent systems, it is not necessarily required for such systems. Verification and validation of agentic behavior in AI systems have been suggested as important research priorities to manage risks associated with the creation of general artificial intelligence.

In the workplace, agentic behavior can be perceived differently based on societal norms and gender stereotypes. For instance, strong, forceful, and aggressive behavior, which can be seen as agentic, might result in a person being seen as competent and confident. However, it might also be perceived as flaunting societal norms, especially for women.

In the context of learning, the term "agentic learning" is used to describe a learning approach where learners take control of their own learning process, setting their own goals and directing their actions towards personal growth and development. This approach is believed to foster engagement, intrinsic motivation, and relatedness, which are critical for deeper learning.

How does it work?

Intelligent agents in AI are autonomous entities that perceive their environment using sensors and act upon it using actuators to achieve their goals. They can also learn from the environment to improve their performance. These agents can be categorized into different types based on their perceived intelligence and capabilities, such as simple reflex agents, model-based agents, goal-based agents, utility-based agents, learning agents, and hierarchical agents.

A simple reflex agent follows pre-defined rules to make decisions, responding only to the current situation without considering past or future ramifications. It is suitable for environments with stable rules and straightforward actions.

Model-based agents have a more comprehensive view of their environments. A model of the world is programmed into their internal system that incorporates the agent's history.

Goal-based agents use information from their environment to achieve specific goals. They employ search algorithms to find the most efficient path towards their objectives within a given environment.

Utility-based agents provide an extra utility measurement that rates each possible scenario on its desired result, and then choose the action that maximizes the outcome.

Learning agents have the ability to gradually improve and become more knowledgeable about an environment over time through an additional learning algorithm or element.

Hierarchical agents are a more advanced type of agent that can handle complex tasks by breaking them down into simpler sub-tasks.

Modern examples of intelligent agents include AI assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, which use sensors to perceive user requests and automatically collect data from the internet without the user's help. Autonomous vehicles are another example. They use sensors, Global Positioning System navigation, and cameras for reactive decision-making in the real world to maneuver through traffic.

In the future, we can expect AI agents to become more autonomous and able to make decisions independently, with minimal human intervention. They can automate customer service, predict demand and trends, optimize production processes, and more. However, it's crucial to consider ethics and use AI agents responsibly and beneficially for your enterprise.

What are its benefits?

AI agents, also known as intelligent virtual agents or digital assistants, are software applications that use AI technologies like natural language processing, machine learning, and data analytics to perform tasks and interact with users. They offer several benefits:

  1. Increased Efficiency and Productivity — AI agents can automate routine tasks, streamlining processes and allowing businesses to operate more efficiently. This leads to time and cost savings while maximizing productivity.

  2. Cost Savings — Implementing AI agents can result in substantial cost savings for businesses. They reduce labor costs and optimize resource allocation, leading to greater operational efficiency. They also minimize the risk of human error, which can lead to costly mistakes.

  3. Enhanced Decision Making — AI agents can process and analyze vast amounts of data quickly, enabling businesses to make informed decisions based on accurate insights and patterns. They can identify trends, provide valuable recommendations, and even predict outcomes.

  4. Improved Customer Experience — AI agents play a pivotal role in enhancing the customer experience. They can provide personalized interactions and prompt responses, ensuring round-the-clock support for customers. This level of responsiveness and tailored service contributes to improved customer satisfaction and increased loyalty.

  5. Automation of Repetitive Tasks — AI agents excel at automating repetitive tasks, allowing human employees to focus on more critical and creative tasks. This boosts productivity, streamlines operations, and achieves better overall results.

  6. Risk Reduction — AI can be used for tasks that are hazardous to humans, reducing risks and ensuring safety.

However, AI agents also have some limitations. They may lack the human touch and personalized approach that some customers desire. They may struggle with handling complex or ambiguous situations that require human intuition and contextual understanding. There is also the risk of errors and misinterpretations in AI algorithms. Implementing AI agents can present challenges for businesses, requiring robust infrastructure, effective data management systems, and specialized expertise.

Despite these challenges, the benefits of AI agents are significant and can revolutionize industries, enhance everyday lives, and make the world a better place.

What are its limitations?

Implementing AI agents comes with a variety of challenges, which can be broadly categorized into data-related, infrastructure-related, talent-related, ethical, and cost-related issues.

  1. Insufficient or Low-Quality Data — AI systems function by being trained on a set of data relevant to the topic they are tackling. However, companies often struggle to provide their AI algorithms with the right quality or volume of data necessary. This can lead to biased or inaccurate results when operating your AI system.

  2. Outdated Infrastructure — For AI systems to function optimally, they need to process large amounts of information quickly. Many businesses are still using outdated equipment that is not capable of handling the demands of AI implementation.

  3. Integration into Existing Systems — Integrating AI into existing systems can be a significant challenge. This process may involve replatforming older apps, breaking monoliths into microservices, and connecting systems via APIs and other middleware.

  4. Lack of AI Talent — Considering how new the concept of AI is, finding people with the necessary knowledge and skills is a considerable challenge. Lack of internal knowledge often keeps many businesses from trying their hand at AI.

  5. Overestimating Your AI System — AI relies on the data it’s given, and if that isn’t correct, neither will the decisions it makes. Therefore, it's crucial to understand the limitations of your AI system and not overestimate its capabilities.

  6. Ethical Considerations — As AI agents become more integrated into society, they may be faced with difficult ethical and moral dilemmas. Ensuring that AI agents make the right decisions in these situations is crucial for gaining public trust and acceptance.

  7. Security Concerns — As AI agents become more integrated into critical systems, such as healthcare and finance, it is crucial that they are not vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

  8. Cost Requirements — Developing, implementing, and integrating AI into your strategy won't be cheap. You'll need to collaborate with AI experts, launch an AI training program for your employees, and probably update your IT equipment to handle the requirements of your machine learning tools.

  9. Lack of Adaptability — Autonomous AI agents act according to their training data, which means they can struggle to adapt to new situations or unexpected changes in their environment.

  10. Lack of Accuracy and Personalization — When a virtual assistant is not able to answer questions accurately, it’s often because it lacks the proper context or doesn’t understand the intent of the question.

Addressing these challenges requires a combination of strategic planning, investment in infrastructure and talent, and a clear understanding of the ethical and security implications of AI implementation.

Who is working on general-purpose agents?

Several companies are actively developing general-purpose AI agents to use computers. These agents are designed to perform a wide range of tasks, from simple commands to complex problem-solving, much like a human user would. Here are some of the key players in this field:

  1. OpenAI — This AI research and deployment company is focused on ensuring that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.

  2. Anthropic — An AI safety and research company, Anthropic is working to build reliable, interpretable, and steerable AI systems.

  3. Google's DeepMind — Known as a world leader in artificial intelligence research, DeepMind applies its technology in various fields, such as games, medicine, and energy efficiency.

  4. Aleph Alpha — This company aims to revolutionize the accessibility and usability of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) in Europe.

  5. Adept AI — A machine learning research and product lab, Adept AI is building general intelligence by enabling humans and computers to work together creatively.

  6. Imbue — An independent research lab, Imbue trains foundational models to develop AI agents.

  7. Generally Intelligent — This independent research company is developing general-purpose AI agents with the ultimate goal of helping solve real-world problems.

  8. MultiOn — This company is beta-testing an AI agent that can perform more complex personal and work tasks when commanded by a human, without needing close supervision.

  9. Cognosys — This company is developing AI agents for work productivity.

  10. Arkifi — This startup is developing AI agents and has recently closed a significant financing round.

These companies are leveraging advanced AI technologies like reinforcement learning, deep neural networks, and cognitive architectures to build AI systems that can perform a wide range of intellectual tasks, with the ultimate goal of achieving human-level intelligence and problem-solving abilities.

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