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Tampa plays host to battling bots

Tech teams gather to compete in designing the e-commerce of the future.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 18, 2001


TAMPA -- Some of the world's top computer researchers came to Tampa this week, sat down at computers and competed in a contest to determine ... how to get to Tampa.

That was the gist of the second Trading Agent Competition, which concluded this week as part of the Association of Computing Machinery Electronic Commerce Conference in Tampa.

"We as a research community are interested in designing the electronic commerce technology of the future," said Bill Walsh, who works at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center and is one of the event organizers. "We believe in the future people will be using automated software to be negotiating on humans' behalf to buy a wide variety of goods and a wide variety of trades."

So the competitors used "bots," automated shopping agents they designed especially for the task, to book an airline trip to the Tampa Bay area. To make it interesting, the contest threw them some curves.

In this hypothetical case, there's only one airline available, with one flight in and one out a day, two hotels and limited entertainment choices.

Many consumers are familiar with bots used for shopping and comparing prices online. But researchers want to make them much more sophisticated so they can react as a human would to changing circumstances during an auction, for example, and handle even more data.

Consumers won't see results from the Trading Agent Competition for years, though at least one company has already used the work of its team in the contest. AT&T prepared its bidding strategy in a Federal Communications Commission auction in part on last year's work by its AT&T Labs team, according to Peter Stone, the team leader.

Organizers say the event already has reached an important objective: bringing researchers from around the world together.

Gathered in a conference room at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Tampa were the finalists in the competition, about two dozen researchers explaining their bots, answering questions and comparing notes.

That kind of collaboration is usually difficult because researchers work individually and far from others, says Michael Wellman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan and event organizer. Wellman led the effort at Michigan to design the game and the school hosts the servers.

In all, the competition attracted 28 teams, from universities such as Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Southampton, Penn State and the Swedish Institute of Computer Science, and corporations such as AT&T Labs and the NEC Research Institute. (No Florida universities participated.)

The team from living systems AG in Germany came out on top this year, with AT&T Labs the runner-up.

-- Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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