Introduction to Agents

Introduction: An agent is anything that can be viewed as perceiving its environment through sensors and acting upon that environment through effectors. A human agent has eyes, ears, and other organs for sensors, and hands, legs, mouth, and other body parts for effectors. A robotic agent substitutes cameras and infrared range finders for the sensors and various motors for the effectors. A software agent has encoded bit strings as its percepts and actions.

An agent acts in an environment.

An agent perceives its environment through sensors. The complete set of inputs at a given time is called a percept. The current percept, or a sequence of percepts can influence the actions of an agent. The agent can change the environment through actuators or effectors. An operation involving an effector is called an action. Actions can be grouped into action sequences. The agent can have goals which it tries to achieve. Thus, an agent can be looked upon as a system that implements a mapping from percept sequences to actions. A performance measure has to be used in order to evaluate an agent. An autonomous agent decides autonomously which action to take in the current situation to maximize progress towards its goals.

HOW AGENTS SHOULD ACT: A rational agent is one that does the right thing. Obviously, this is better than doing the wrong thing, but what does it mean? As a first approximation, we will say that the right action is the one that will cause the agent to be most successful. That leaves us with the problem of deciding how and when to evaluate the agent’s success.

We use the term performance measure for the how—the criteria that determine how successful an agent is. Obviously, there is not one fixed measure suitable for all agents. We could ask the agent for a subjective opinion of how happy it is with its own performance, but some agents would be unable to answer, and others would delude themselves. (Human agents in particular are notorious for “sour grapes”—saying they did not really want something after they are unsuccessful at getting it.) Therefore, we will insist on an objective performance measure imposed by some authority. In other words, we as outside observers establish a standard of what it means to be successful in an environment and use it to measure the performance of agents.

As an example, consider the case of an agent that is supposed to vacuum a dirty floor. A plausible performance measure would be the amount of dirt cleaned up in a single eight-hour shift. A more sophisticated performance measure would factor in the amount of electricity consumed and the amount of noise generated as well. A third performance measure might give highest marks to an agent that not only cleans the floor quietly and efficiently, but also finds time to go windsurfing at the weekend. The when of evaluating performance is also important. If we measured how much dirt the agent had cleaned up in the first hour of the day, we would be rewarding those agents that start fast (even if they do little or no work later on), and punishing those that work consistently. Thus, we want to measure performance over the long run, be it an eight-hour shift or a lifetime.

We need to be careful to distinguish between rationality and omniscience. An omniscient agent knows the actual outcome of its actions, and can act accordingly; but omniscience is impossible in reality. Consider the following example: I am walking along the Champs Elys´ees one day and I see an old friend across the street. There is no traffic nearby and I’m not otherwise engaged, so, being rational, I start to cross the street. Meanwhile, at 33,000 feet, a cargo door falls off a passing airliner,2 and before I make it to the other side of the street I am flattened. Was I irrational to cross the street? It is unlikely that my obituary would read “Idiot attempts to cross street.” Rather, this points out that rationality is concerned with expected success given what has been perceived. Crossing the street was rational because most of the time the crossing would be successful, and there was no way I could have foreseen the falling door. Note that another agent that was equipped with radar for detecting falling doors or a steel cage strong enough to repel them would be more successful, but it would not be any more rational.

In other words, we cannot blame an agent for failing to take into account something it could not perceive, or for failing to take an action (such as repelling the cargo door) that it is incapable of taking. But relaxing the requirement of perfection is not just a question of being fair to agents. The point is that if we specify that an intelligent agent should always do what is actually the right thing, it will be impossible to design an agent to fulfill this specification—unless we improve the performance of crystal balls.

In summary, what is rational at any given time depends on four things:

  • The performance measure that defines degree of success.
  • Everything that the agent has perceived so far. We will call this complete perceptual history the percept sequence.
  • What the agent knows about the environment.
  • The actions that the agent can perform.

This leads to a definition of an ideal rational agent: For each possible percept sequence, an ideal rational agent should do whatever action is expected to maximize its performance measure, on the basis of the evidence provided by the percept sequence and whatever built-in knowledge the agent has.

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