News Release

Would you trust a phone to spend money?

Reports and Proceedings

New Scientist

A CONSORTIUM of the world's top consumer electronics firms, mobile networks and broadcasters are funding the development of cellphones that will spend money on your behalf. The consortium, called Mobile VCE, includes Nokia, Sony, Vodafone and the BBC.

It might sound like a bankruptcy waiting to happen, but software engineer Nick Jennings is supremely confident the phones will not mess up anybody's life. Jennings's team at the University of Southampton in the UK are developing programs known as software agents for the consortium. "I see the artificial agent as more like a butler-type character," he says.

The agents, which will run on the new generation of 3G phones, will watch how you use your mobile and learn to anticipate your next move. "They start off monitoring what you do and gradually look for ways to increase their role. Over time they get to know your preferences," says Jennings.

Once they have done that, the agents will decide for themselves what they think you need, for example retrieving online information, making restaurant or hotel reservations or buying travel tickets for you. So far the ag

ents have only been tested on palmtop computers with built-in cellphones. But eventually they will be downloadable or sold as part of an ordinary 3G phone. The full version will be available in about 18 months when phones should be able to run programs other than those required for normal use, says Jennings.

The software's main focus is to recognise when you have a trip coming up in your diary, and then ask if you want it to check the availability of flights and hotels. In time, Jennings hopes you will decide to trust it to book the entire trip, choosing your preferred seating, route, day trips- and even allowing it to spend cash.

The cellphone agents only offer help if triggered by a diary event or if a definite pattern of behaviour, such as going to the movies every Friday, has been established. While the idea of handing over purchasing power to a phone will be anathema to most, Jennings claims the phenomenon is creeping up on us. "We already see simple aspects of this behaviour in places like the eBay website, where software agents are deciding what to bid and when to bid," he says. "It just depends upon how much autonomy you want to give them."

Dave Cliff, an expert in agent technology at Hewlett-Packard's lab in Bristol, reckons people will get used to the idea. "The step of empowering the agent to spend on your behalf might seem like a big psychological hurdle," says Cliff. But after a while the process of approving the phone's suggestions will become routine and tedious. It'll become less hassle to let the phone make the purchase itself, as long as you set a spending limit, he says.


Author: Duncan Graham-Rowe
New Scientist issue: 14th June 2003

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