"Pattie Maes, [of MIT's] Media Lab . . . spends most of her time on . . . 'intelligent agents' -- programs that simulate some of the behaviors and even appearances of living creatures, but that are designed to serve a useful role for their computer-user 'owners.' . . .
"To make her agents smarter and more customized to individual users' preferences, Maes has turned to artificial evolution. To 'breed' a better electronic mail sorting agent, for example, Maes starts with a small 'population' of mail 'retrievers,' represented on-screen as golden retrievers. . . . Each retriever uses a different set of priorities to sort incoming electronic mail: one might tag all articles with sports terms as 'must-read' items, while another would . . . give preference to e-mail letters sent from the user's boss. After examining the retrievers' work, the user indicates which ones did the best job. Those few are then mated: their offspring are provided with some characteristics from each parent, along with a few random mutations. The offspring replace the rejected retrievers, and the process is repeated until the user is satisfied with a particular retriever's work. . . .
"Such intelligent agents, insists Maes, will be seen by users not only as useful and entertaining, enlivening otherwise dreary computer chores, but also as endearing, and even lovable. 'As computers become more important as a medium for social interaction, intelligent agents will be equally or more important as robots with real bodies,' she says. . . . Maes has discussed her work with various companies in the entertainment industry, some of which apparently see a bright future for interactive video systems containing entire populations of life-like artificial animals and people, as well as with mainstream software companies seeking to make their programs 'friendlier."
-- from Brainmakers: How Scientists Are Moving Beyond Computers to Create a Rival to the Human Brain, by David H. Freedman, Simon & Schuster, 1994, $22* * *