Cutting Edge

Pour Away

You’re about to pour the last ounce of milk into your late-night bowl of cereal. Oops — looks like there’ll be none left for your morning coffee! All the stores are closed. What’s a hungry night owl to do? No problem. By 6 a.m., a new gallon will be on your doorstep, thanks to a microchip sensor embedded in the milk carton and transmitted to an Internet device on your kitchen counter. It’s the latest battle in cyberspace. And it’s coming soon to your refrigerator. Grocery manufacturers, supermarkets and on-line grocers are scrambling to figure out how to leverage emerging technologies so they can place their products directly in your home. New point-of-sale systems that interact with fledgling Web-commerce ventures, coupled with new database mining tools, are letting companies analyse customer behaviour to an unprecedented degree.

Make Time For Face Time

Does electronic chatting help or hinder teamwork? Professor Ken Graetz and a group of his students at the University of Dayton’s department of psychology wanted to determine how the method of communication affects the way people share information with a group. So the group conducted a study based upon the “hidden profile problem.” Participants were divided into teams of four and asked to review three proposals to build a new air reconnaissance system. Next, the researchers gave each team member two types of information: facts the whole team was privy to and facts known only to that individual. Then the teams were assigned to communicate with each other to solve that problem either face to face, through teleconferencing or via electronic chat.

Graetz says groups have a tendency to discuss knowledge that is common among them without revealing specific personal knowledge that might be imperative to solving the problem. And this situation, as it turns out, is exacerbated when group members are not communicating in person. The study showed that none of the electronic chat groups was able to combine shared and unshared information to solve the problem assigned to them, while the face-to-face and teleconference groups were equal in their ability to solve their problems. Based on these results, Graetz discourages the use of electronic chat for “multiparty decision making that involves moderate to large amounts of information exchange.” So the next time you need a team of experts to brainstorm, you might want to put them all in the same room.

My Agent Will Call Your Agent

Someone knocks on your door. It’s the police, questioning you about e-commerce fraud. But you don’t recall any such incident — it was your electronic Web agent that committed the crime, misrepresenting itself to a seller’s agent in a transaction monitored by virtual police.

Such a fantastic-sounding scenario may be just a few years away, according to researchers at the Institute for Advanced Commerce at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Scientists there are using computer simulations and mathematical theories to model an “information economy” consisting of billions of preprogrammed intelligent agents that roam the Internet looking for bargains, selling merchandise, brokering deals, and even running auctions untouched by direct human involvement. Eventually, agents may manage other agents, form associations, and specialize in services like data mining and translation, researchers say.

“This world that we are moving into of agent-mediated commerce is going to fundamentally change interactions between buyers and sellers,” says Jeff Kephart, manager of the Agents and Emergent Phenomena Group at Watson. “I don’t think it’s more than a couple of years off.”

Agents aren’t as smart or adaptable as people, but they can process far more electronic information more quickly, magnifying both good and bad phenomena. Kephart likens his group’s research to predicting the effects of introducing genetically engineered species into nature.

Already, bots like ShopBot and RoboShopper search e-commerce sites to find the best prices.

As bots proliferate, Kephart says, the cost of traditional commercial activities like searching, transporting, and transacting, will be reduced almost to zero, fundamentally changing the rules of commerce. Stores that now charge more because of their location, for example, may not be able to do so in a virtual market where every merchant is a hyperlink away.

Home With The Jetsons

You’re going to meet a client for dinner when a horrible realization hits you: You forgot to set the VCR to tape tonight’s Ally McBeal. No problemo: Just pick up the cell phone, dial your home number, punch in a few codes, and voil