In the military, software can distinguish a tank from a tree. In the office, it can now distinguish you from your compatriots. Smart software has arrived at the desktop via a technology called a learning agent, which "observes" a person's habits at a computer and automatically adapts to them. It thereby shortcuts otherwise tediously repeated routines, such as file-management tasks, backups, and on-screen window arrangements.

A learning agent can ascertain, for example, the names of related project-specific files you usually want when you sign on. At start-up it will open your mail program -- if that's what you usually do -- or wait until one activity by you (referring to your appointment calendar, for instance) triggers your need for E-mail reference.

Running on a Macintosh (a Windows version is in the offing), one learning-agent package called Open Sesame! sits "behind" other applications, registering user actions over days or weeks. When it recognizes patterns, it attempts to automate them, asking the user for approval. A typical screen: "Commander, I notice you often open 'Schedule' after opening 'Project Budget.' Would you like me to automate this task?" If "Commander" prefers, he or she can ask Open Sesame! simply to proffer a reminder that, according to routine, it's time to open "Schedule."

Open Sesame! from Charles River Analytics costs $99 and requires a Macintosh, System 7.0 or higher. For more information, call 800-913-3535.

Also new are software programs whose inference drawing is -- unlike that of Open Sesame! -- restricted to specific applications. A sampling: Hoover (published by SandPoint) performs text retrieval on Lotus Notes and other text files. Beyond Mail (from Beyond) provides a rule-based environment to manage E-mail. Magnet (from No Hands Software) moves files automatically, according to a prearranged time or triggering event. The Electronic Workforce (from Edify) creates work-flow matrices for sales activities.