First FIPA specs target interoperable network-agent apps

Cyber-agent standard gets nod

ByPeter Clarke


MUNICH, GERMANY - In an attempt to set standards for intelligent network agents, the Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents (FIPA) ratified the results of its first fullyear ofwork on the FIPA-97 standard at a meeting held here this month, hosted by Siemens corporate research.

FIPA, with members from the United States, Europe, Korea, Japan and Taiwan, set out a year ago to bridge the worlds of science fietion and software engincering by creating standards for interopcrable agent-based applications. Its list of 34 members reads like an international Who's Who of telecommunications and computer technology, and includes Alcatel, British Telecommunications, Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom, Hitachi, HewlettPackard, IBM, NEC, N'IT, Nortel, Siemens and Toshiba.

The challenge of the group's effort is elear. " Unfortunately, standardization is organized according to traditional business segments while agents are an enabling technology which can be shared by multiple industries," said Leonardo Chiariglione, president of FIPA. "Before non-interoperable standards would appear, FIPA has been established to promote agents-based interoperabilitywithin and across different application domains."


Time-saving tasks

Though no agreed-upon definition exists, software agents are generally understood to be software modules that can perform tasks and that can interact with humans, with other agents or with other entities such as databases. In an illustrating example, a software agent would be sent out on a network to collect information on behalf of a human operator, freeing the operator to perform other work until the agent reports back.

"With the arrival of the Internet, networked equipment is the norm," Chiariglione said. "Yon have to interoperate with equipment and software made by others, and you need standards."

Chiariglione has also worked with the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) standards body, and leads multimedia and video research at the Centro Studi e Laboratori Telecomunicazioni (CSELT; Turin, Italy).

Though agents are seen as part of the future of networked computing-they have appeared in cyberpunk scienec-fiction novels-they also stem from a new way of looking at software. Internet browsers, for example, display some of the intelligent charaeteristics associatedwith agents.


Getting Physical

Explaining the term 'physical' in FIPAs name, Chiariglione said "the world is based on physical things, and these intelligent agents may have to perform some aetion or activate some device. We already have machines which do things for us - embedded systems - but they are of very low intelligence. The agent paradigm is what is added to make a new generation," he said.

The lack of a universal definition of a software agent has been one of the main hurdles to progress so far, Chiariglione said, though other organizations, such as the Object Management Group and Corba, are also working on this matter, he said.

The FIPA-97 standard is constructed in seven parts that reflect the efforts of seven working groups. "After one year of intense work, there are seven parts to the standard which industry can take and make produets with," Chiariglione said.

The first three parts cover different aspects of agent behavior: agent management; agent communication; and agent-software interaetion.

The four remaining parts, which cover application areas, will be used to test the FIPA-97 standard during 1998. They are: personal travel assistance; personal assistant; audio-visual entertainment and broadcast; and network provision and management.

The applications indicate that telecommunications may be one of the first areas to use agent standardization. Discussions of how mobile and fixed telephone networks could utilize agent technology have already been held.

"We chose those four application cases because that's where a commercial case can be made," said professor Abe Mamdani of the Imperial College of Scienee and Technology (London), and technical adviser to the FIPA board.

With the approval of FIPA-97 at the recent meeting, Chiariglione described FlPA's plans going forward. "In 1998 we are going to validate FIPA-97 by having members take the specifications and apply them to these four application areas and report back on how it performs," he said. This process will provide input for a further round of standardization, which is expected to be approved next Oetober as FIPA-98.

Some areas that FIPA-98 may address have already been identified, according to the foundation.

"FIPA-97 doesn't say anything about agent mobility," the ability of an agent to move itself through a network, rather than

pulling data across it, said Mamdani. "java could well be a useful programming language in which to implement agents, because agents sit on top of objects."

FIPA must strive to be general, Mamdani said. "For example, a Prolog agent may meet a Java agent. They need to be able to excbange information," he said.

Other aspects of FIPA-98 are still to be defined. "The agent arca is evolving so rapidly, it is not feasible to predict what technology will become mature in 1999," Chiariglione said.

"Our intention is to take our specification to other standardizing bodies-ISO [the International Standards Organization], ITU [the International Telecommunications Union] or others," said Chiariglione. MPEG moved the same way, and had worked through ISO to finally rubber stamp its work.


Conspicuous abentee

Microsoft Corp. (Redmond, Wash.) is notably absent from FlPA's membership, though Chiariglione said he was not concerned. "Microsoft needs a business reason to get involved," he said. "Microsoft was not a member of MPEG in the MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 standardization phases. But now Microsoft has announced it will use MPEG-4. They are now playing a relevant role."

CSELT maintains extensive information on FlPA's activities at "It is our policy to make the standard freely available over the Internet," Chiariglione said. "FIPA will retain the copyright but it will be free for others to use. We hope that those companies not already members will stop by and look at what we're doing."