Of course, a good secretary can do all this, and the relationship with a secretary is -fortunately - richer than that with a virtual being. But Sarah and Oliver can work at the speed of electronics. Together, they can simultaneously carry out dozens of unpleasant, boring, routine tasks without getting discouraged, and they can communicate with other agents. Still at the prototype stage, they are the model for new generations of agents being developed by the major software companies. Secretaries will be able to devote themselves to tasks that are more interesting and that require human contact.
Intelligent agents will quickly constitute a new population of virtual beings. Like controlled computer viruses, they will reproduce, form groups, and develop their own "cultures." As representatives of artificial life, they will gradually colonize whole continents in cyberspace. They will work in teams; supplied with "permits" and "authorizations" (for making purchases or negotiating), they will be able to share tasks and compare information, and their skills will increase progressively as they do their research and prepare files. Circulating on the networks, these new "intraterrestrials" will offer their services to users. Using the genetic algorithms described above, agent programs will be able to mutate, self-select, and evolve to solve increasingly complex problems, increasing their value on the "electronic employment exchange." But there are also potential dangers. Knowing all their employer's habits, preferences, and secrets, they could be kidnapped on the networks and used against the employer. Agents negotiating on important issues could even organize to oppose certain demands or refuse certain constraints.
The physical appearance of intelligent agents will change considerably. Since virtual cloning makes it possible to create synthetic electronic beings, doubles of real people, they will be physically more human. They will communicate through speech, repartee, changes of expression, and mimicry. Science fiction writers and futurologists of the seventies foresaw a world populated with domestic robots living in homes like pets. The robots R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars personify this type of anthropomorphic, sympathetic robot. It is probable that certain duties will be carried out by a growing variety of real, mechatronic, and computer-generated robots or by swarms of minirobots resembling insects, like those developed by Rodney Brooks at MIT, described above. But just as the invasive and complex interfaces with humans will give way to less constraining virtual interfaces, the cyberspace, hypermedia, and information highways of tomorrow will be populated by agents, new virtual robots. Through virtual cloning, they will also invade our real world. A number of laboratories are working on the projection of animated holographic images, with remarkable results. Science fiction movies have already contained characters that communicated with the world through holographic projections, such as the small animated silhouette of the princess in Star Wars or the life-size form of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall. Progress in the three-dimensional projection of virtual clones will make it possible to have animated characters appear in our real world and interact with us; they represent the next generation of intelligent agents, the symbiotic population of virtual robots.
The worldwide network of the Internet is the beginnning of the new collective cyberspace containing virtual clones, intelligent agents, and, undoubtedly, viruses and other electronic parasites that infect the networks. Without biological cloning (which is bioethically unacceptable), without invasive prostheses to connect brains to each other, without a menagerie of robots living in our immediate environment, virtual reality is creating a dematerialized world that exists somewhere between the imagination and reality, a world that is likely to have a profound effect on our individual and collective actions.
The technical conditions for symbiosis between humans and the social macro-organism have been met. One of the fastest-growing areas of development, and one of the most significant for the future, involves the planetary brain, biotic interfaces, and cyberspace. That is why I have chosen this area as the model for examining the emergence of symbiotic humanity. Using the machines, the muscles, and the brains of human beings, an immense planetary being is gradually taking shape and coming to life: the cybiont.
An extract from "Symbiotic Man" (Seuil, 1995)
With the author's agreement.