Rich Semantic Infrastructure Needed for Software Agents to Thrive

Making intelligent software agents both powerful and easy to construct, manage, and maintain will require a very rich semantic infrastructure. Without such a rich semantic infrastructure, the bulk of the intelligence would have to be inside the individual agents, or very cleverly encoded by the designer, or even more cleverly encoded in an armada of relatively dumb distributed agents that offer collective intelligence, but all of those approaches would put intelligent software agents far beyond the reach of average users or even average software professionals or average computer scientists. The alternative is to leverage all of that intellect and invest it in producing an intelligent semantic infrastructure that relatively dumb software agents can then feed off of. Simple-minded agents will effectively gain intelligence by being able to stand on the shoulders of giants. How to design and construct such a rich semantic infrastructure is an open question.

The richness of the semantic infrastructure has two dimensions, first to enable a single agent to act as if it were intelligent without the need to hard-wire hard AI into each agent, and also to enable multiple agents to communicate, cooperate, and collaborate, again as if they were intelligent but without requiring hard AI in each agent.

Some of the levels of richness that can be used to characterize a semantic infrastructure:

  • Fully Automatic — intelligent actions occur within the infrastructure itself without any explicit action of agents
  • Goal-Oriented Processing — infrastructure processes events and conditions based on goals that agents register
  • Goal-Oriented Triggering — agents register very high-level goals and the infrastructure initiates agent activity as needed
  • Task-Oriented Triggering — agents register for events and conditions and are notified, much as database triggers
  • Very High-Level Scripting — agents have explicit code to check for conditions, but little programming skill is needed
  • Traditional Scripting — agents are scripted using scripting languages familiar to today’s developers
  • Hard-Coded Agents — agents are carefully hand-coded for accuracy and performance using programming languages such as Java or C++
  • Web Services — agents rely on API-level services provided by carefully selected and coded intelligent web servers
  • Proprietary Services — Only a limited set of services are available to the average agent on a cost/license basis
  • Custom Network — a powerful distributed computing approach, but expensive, not leveraged, difficult to plan, operate, and maintain

This is really only one dimension of richness, a measure of how information is processed. Another dimension would be the richness of the information itself, such as data, information, knowledge, wisdom, and various degrees within each of those categories. In other words, what units of information are being processed by agents and the infrastructure. The goal is to get to some reasonably high-level form of knowledge as the information unit. The Semantic Web uses URIs, triples, and graphs, which is as good a starting point as any, but I suspect that a much higher-level unit of knowledge is needed to achieve a semantic infrastructure rich enough to support truly intelligent software agents that can operate at the goal-oriented infrastructure level and be reasonably easy to conceptualize, design, develop, debug, deploy, manage, and maintain, and to do all of that with a significantly lower level of skill than even an average software professional. End-users should be able to build and use such intelligent agents.

What would such a rich semantic infrastructure actually look like and how would it be engineered? Ah, there’s the rub — nobody really knows. It’s a research area, except for the fact that nobody is actually doing any significant research in this area yet. I have a lot of fragments of ideas in my head, but there is still a lot more work needed.

My motivation with this essay is simply to describe my vision, in the hope that it might inspire others to invest some effort and enthusiasm in the essential concepts of the vision.

(Much of this essay was originally a blog post by the author, entitled “Richness of semantic infrastructure” posted back in 2011.)