The Butlers Of The Digital Age Will Be Just A Keystroke Away

Think of the proper english butler. Every morning, long before his lordship rises, the butler is scurrying through the great house, anticipating his master's every need. That's the basic concept behind "intelligent agents," software that travels through computer networks to fulfill users' requests. Agents can make travel reservations, collect interesting stories from news services or sort through electronic mail--while their master is miles from the keyboard. Agents were not much more than a futurist's dream until the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. There, a Silicon Valley company, General Magic Inc., announced the development of software called Telescript that includes features that may someday become the butlers of the digital age.

And you thought good help was hard to find. Like the butler, Telescript relies on a small army of assistants to keep things running smoothly. Instead of housekeepers, gardeners and scullery maids, Telescript's success depends on the creation of a virtual world of electronic shopping, communication and information services--few of which exist today. Telescript will be released this summer as part of a software program called Magic Cap, General Magic promises. About a dozen companies, including America Online, AT&T and official Airline Guides, say they will have products available by the end of the year that can take advantage of the new technology. Until than, it will be hard to tell for sure whether Telescript is really the breakthrough technology its inventors claim.

Software developers who are working with General Magic believe the day is near when everyone will have his own computerized Anthony Hopkins. Matt Kursh, president of eShop Inc., says his company is designing the electronic stores that consumers--or their agents--will enter via personal computers or handheld computing devices. These stores will exist only in cyberspace. But what Kursh's stores lack in real estate, they'll make up for in service. In a demonstration last week, Kursh easily navigated through an electronic sporting-goods store with the aid of an incredibly courteous on-screen salesman who knew all of the customer's previous purchases and could explain the best features of everything from tennis racquets to golf clubs. To order, a buyer clicks on a mouse. The store already has the consumer's credit-card information. A day or two later, there's a new putter in the golf bag.

In Kursh's demonstration, the consumer guides the purchase personally. But once a network of electronic stores and information services is fully in place, Telescript's agents can theoretically do the shopping on their own. Say you want a new stereo system. You would list your specifications and send the agent out through the system to find the best price. The next time you turn on your computer, the agent will have drawn up a list of possibilities. If one seems right, you can instruct the agent to buy it and have the package delivered to your door. (Although you'd be wise to buy it on a 30-day approval in case you find the bass disappointing.)

Agents can also monitor weather reports at favorite resorts or scan electronic forums run by on-line services to see if there's any cyberchat you might find interesting. An agent could remind you of your mother's birthday, suggest possible gifts it has found and then arrange delivery.

This high-tech version of "Upstairs, Downstairs" worries some industry observers. They say that badly designed agents might turn into a version of computer viruses, destroying every system they touch. Or they could be abused by government agencies, which could keep tabs on a consumer's personal life by tracking the agents' activities. Even worse, they could open up a consumer to a greater onslaught of catalogs and junk mail. General Magic counters that the agents can be instructed to self-destruct when they have finished their task, reducing the risk of their "going bad." Security codes are also programmed in to guard privacy. (And if they're captured by federal agent, will they have to remember to give only their name and rank before calling their cyberlawyer?)

No one knows how long it will take for consumers to accept General Magic's concept--if they ever do. Even such ultimately popular technologies as automated teller machines and voice mail took a while to catch on. Kursh thinks that the first users of his electronic-shopping services may be people looking for computer-related products because they're comfortable with the keyboard. But will the average American willingly give up crowded malls, surly clerks and long lines at the cashier?

Hey, call my agent.