BELLEVUE, Wash. (AP) -- Last Christmas' hottest toy is Exhibit A at a high-tech robot conference this week.
The Furby -- a fuzzy robot that talks, learns, and interacts with people and other Furbies that was the rage this past holiday season -- is just the beginning of ``autonomous agent'' technology.
At the third annual Conference on Autonomous Agents, researchers presented dozens of computer programs and systems that can think, learn, and act independently of their human creators.
The Furby is a simple toy, but researchers say the eventual applications of the technology will be far-reaching and grand.
The presentations ranged from practical to whimsical, including robotic dogs, self-navigating spacecraft, e-mail organizers, smarter Internet search engines, and interactive teaching programs that even spring pop quizzes. Scientists say these ideas are all very real and very possible with current technology.
Conference participants were buzzing Tuesday about a presentation called ``Model-based Autonomous Systems in Deep Space.'' The Deep Space 1 unmanned probe was launched in October, bound for an asteroid 120 million miles away.
This month, NASA will start testing the spacecraft's autonomous system. Instead of people at Ground Control telling the probe what to do, Deep Space's computer system will create a list of goals, draw up a schedule and perform it, NASA computer scientist Gregory Dorais said. If something goes wrong, the system is equipped with enough knowledge to fix problems without help from Earth.
The distance between Earth and the probe is so vast that it can take 15 minutes for NASA controllers to receive word that something's wrong and correct it, Dorais said. That 15 minutes of delay can doom a mission, he said.
``With autonomous software, more can be done and it can be done more safely,'' he said.
Back on Earth, autonomous software is being put to more everyday uses.
Richard Segal, an IBM researcher, demonstrated a program that helps sort e-mail. Existing programs put mail into folders before it's been read. But the IBM program, called MailCat, uses a different approach. MailCat reads through folders and reads incoming mail to determine which folder is the right one. A box pops up above the e-mail message, giving the user three choices of where to put it. That way, Segal said, fewer e-mails get misfiled.
A prototype of MailCat may be available within a few months, Segal said.
Also on the horizon is an Internet search engine called Watson, the Ph.D. project of Jay Budzik from Northwestern University.
If you're writing a paper, Watson can actually read the work in progress and then search the Internet for information relevant to your topic -- without any guidance from you.
``It presents results to the user in an unobtrusive way that's really manageable to use,'' Budzik said.
Watson works with Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT - news) Word and Internet Explorer.
This year's conference was sponsored in part by the Association for Computing Machinery. Jeffrey Bradshaw of Boeing Co. (NYSE:BA - news), one of the organizers, said the sessions are more practical than ever before.
``We're seeing a lot more stuff making it into the real world,'' he said.
He noted that the speakers include Bill Joy, chief scientist of Sun Microsystems Inc., and Microsoft Corp. research director Dan Ling: ``It shows that the big folks worrying about software are very interested in what we're doing.''
Autonomous agents are coming to the forefront, Bradshaw said, in part because of the unwieldiness of information on the Internet. Ordinary Web browsers often aren't enough.
``You can't browse and click and find what you want on the Internet,'' Bradshaw said. ``You need something more intelligent and smarter to find what you want.''
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