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Intelligent agents help humans learn from computers

Steve August 25, 1997
Web posted at: 11:30 p.m. EDT (0330 GMT)

From Correspondent Dick Wilson

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- In Los Angeles, the word "agent" can mean one thing to Hollywood starlets, and quite another to the computer industry elsewhere in the same city.

Intelligent agents are the leading edge of computer research at the Information Sciences Institute, a part of the University of Southern California.

The agents are very sophisticated computer programs that mimic human thinking and actions. Take as an example an agent that researchers have created to help train maintenance workers on U.S. Navy vessels. His name is Steve.

the interface

On military ships, maintenance is a top priority -- you can't just pull in for a pit stop when you're in the middle of the Pacific. The faster maintenance workers can be trained, the better for the ships in question.

Enter Steve, who, acting as a virtual teacher can take the form of a human figure or a hand on a computer screen, guiding students through a Navy training program.

Students wear virtual reality headsets and use a mouse to interact with Steve. They can ask him questions. Or, they can prompt him to demonstrate procedures for running the virtual ship's engine room, from changing the oil to checking alarm lights and testing the ship's temperature monitor.

The same principles of agents and artificial intelligence are put to deadlier purposes in a virtual battlefield demonstration. Blue helicopters hover in battle formation behind a hill, out of sight of a column of tanks.


As the choppers jump above the horizon and fire missiles, they knock out the tanks -- performing autonomously, USC professor Paul Rosenbloom says. "They know what their mission is and how to accomplish it."

There is nothing new, of course, about virtual war games. The university's research, Rosenbloom says, shows potential for systems that can learn from their own behavior, solve problems and plan for the future.

And, ultimately, help humans learn from computers.


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