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Can Artificial Intelligence Master the Art of the Deal?


A bot might someday take your job, but perhaps it can help you negotiate a nice severance package, too.

A recent research paper (PDF) suggests that AI agents could do all sorts of useful haggling, providing they become a little bit smarter, and users can be persuaded to trust them.

The authors envision a world where an AI agent negotiates on your behalf, like buying a house or working out the details of a pay raise. And they write that such technology could allow negotiations in new areas like figuring out the terms of an energy-sharing deal with your neighbor, or the amount of money you should receive for giving up some privacy information to a mobile app. The team has experimented with an Android app that lets you do just that, in fact.

In an interview with Science, one of the authors, Tim Baarslag from Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica in Amsterdam, says the key challenges are giving such systems deep understanding of a particular domain, like real estate or energy, as well as enabling some sort of long-term perspective, so that it can negotiate with an entity that it’s dealt with before.

AI agents are, in fact, already used for all sorts of more narrow negotiations, like figuring out the correct price for an online ad, or the right bid for a stock. But it’s fascinating to imagine them taking on more human areas of deal-making. Perhaps AI may someday play a vital role in future standoffs like the one between the U.S. and North Korea?

One interesting observation from the researchers’ paper, however, provides a little pause for thought. “People may show less regard for fairness and ethical behavior when negotiating through a third (human) party,” the authors write. “This raises the question as to whether agents should similarly lie on behalf of a user, for example by using argumentation and persuasion technology. Analogous to recent research on ethical dilemmas in self-driving cars, people may claim that negotiation agents should be ethical, but sacrifice these ideals if it maximizes their profits.”