The key for turning computers into powerful e-bulldozers is to identify concepts that will be shared among machines-in the airlines example the concepts of availability, date, class of service, fare and so forth. With such a list agreed upon, programs can be used on individual machines to negotiate with one another and carry out simple tasks. Developing the electronic forms (e-forms), as I call these lists of shared concepts, does not require high technology-a simple collection of pre-agreed codes is often adequate, as in the case of airline reservations. But that will not happen spontaneously. The people who stand to benefit by automating their manual office transactions must get together and agree on what to list in their e-forms. So, if the produce wholesalers or the X-ray specialists or any other common interest group wants to get their e-bulldozers going, they must agree on the e-forms they will use. Reaching human agreement, however, is usually tougher than inventing a new technology. That’s why there are hardly any e-bulldozers around at the moment.
Today, we hear about intelligent agents-programs that are supposed to roam the Web and represent us, searching for information we need, or doing other useful tasks on our behalf. The imagery is so seductive and the use of the term so frequent that one would think agents are already a well-established reality-sold at the corner store, as it were. Not so. Talking about an agent is invariably the restatement of a wish, to be carried out by a program that, somehow, often mystically, is expected to behave as we do. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to do this. To do useful work on our behalf, an agent must “understand” the information it will encounter as it roams. In other words, we are back to the difficult requirement that the agent must share concepts with the computers it visits on the Net.
Whether we call them agents or e-bulldozers, the programs that offload human work onto computers will materialize gradually, as people agree on the concepts they need to share and automate. And they will automate primarily simple clerical tasks. When this is done, by most common interest groups, well into the 21st century, we will have achieved perhaps 200 percent to 300 percent gains in human office productivity-as much as we did in the last 80 years of the Industrial Revolution. Then, we may proudly call the movement an Information Revolution, since it will have fulfilled people’s ancient quest to accomplish more while doing less.