KNOWBOTS(TM) Deliver The Goods

By Susan Calcari

Have you ever wished for a little robot to sit at your workstation and perform the tedious chore of finding and retrieving information from databases distributed around the world?

Well, hold onto your keyboards, because the Corporation for Network Research Initiatives (CNRI) is working on a project which is the debut  of exactly that kind of tool-one which will automate the searching of multiple disparate databases. CNRI has been working with the  National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) on a utility for database searches in the Medline databases of the NLM.

All the databases are now accessed via public networks but two of them, ELHILL and TOXNET, will soon be accessible over the Internet, perhaps as soon as June of this year. The work currently being done at CNRI targets the electronic databases at the National Library of Medicine's Lister Hill Center, known as the MEDLARS system.

The prototype NLM Multiple Database Access Project was demonstrated recently at the American College of Radiology conference at the
Lister Hill Center. The Multiple Database Access Project is part of a larger CNRI project called Digital Library Systems and applies the Knowbot technology of the DLS to the Multiple Database Access effort.

Initial project goals nearly complete

At the outset of the project, a number of goals were defined which included:

1) providing parallel access to NLM's multiple databases,

2) extending the NLM's form-based user interface for Mac's and PC's (Grateful-Med) to UNIX workstations,

3) supporting non-text information retrieval, and

4) supporting Internet access to the Medline databases.

Three of the four are nearly complete. The fourth, supporting non-text information retrieval, is currently under investigation.

The heart of the project

At the heart of the project is the "Knowbot(TM)," (KNOWledge roBOT) an active, intelligent program which acts on behalf of the user to carry  out a search and retrieval task. A Knowbot exchanges messages with other Knowbots and moves from one system to another to carry out the user's wishes. When the Knowbot sets out on an assignment several processes occur:

Additional Features

An additional option to forms-based access is to open up a "transparent" window to ELHILL, TOXNET, and to a Johns Hopkins Welch Library database: On-line Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) and the Genome DataBase (GDB). This is, in effect, a telnet screen. The window offers direct access to the interactive interfaces of the standard ELHILL, TOXNET, OMIM and GDB systems. (See Figure 1.)

It is possible to have multiple Knowbot queries running while simultaneously doing manual interactive searches in this transparent window. In addition, since the user agent stores an encrypted form of the logins for each database, the user only needs to provide login information once for each database accessed.

Flexible design

The general design of the CNRI system is very flexible with the user agent and database server separable across the Internet. In the present experimental implementation, the user agent typically runs on a SUN 4/110 workstation at CNRI, the database server on a SUN 3/160 at the National Library of Medicine, the two NLM database systems on Telenet (but ELHILL is soon to be accessible on the Internet) and the OMIM and GDB systems via the Internet.

Demonstrations using Network Computing Devices X-display stations as well as the SUN 4/110 workstations have been conducted for NLM and for NSF.

Looking to the future - short term

In the next few months Knowbots will be written to perform multiple searches from a single request. For example, the user will complete one Knowbot search form and the single Knowbot will locate and access multiple Medline databases until it finds the information requested.

The current Knowbot-based system will be extended to support queries to databases other than ELHILL and TOXNET. The database server will be enhanced to support queries which are not database specific by making use of information about the contents of the various MEDLARS databases.

For the long term

Knowbots are general tools for implementing complex, distributed computations, processes and services. Researchers at CNRI and elsewhere  are exploring applications of Knowbots as part of a more general examination of a national information infrastructure.

Looking further into the future, two of many possibilities are:

Additional CNRI Projects

The Corporation for National Research Initiatives is involved in a number of networking research projects in areas of High Speed Digital Networking ("Gigabits"), Digital Library Systems, Inter-Organizational Messaging, and Internet Research.

For more information about Knowbots or other CNRI projects, contact:

Corp. for National Research Initiatives
1895 Preston White Drive
Suite 100
Reston, VA 22091

Taken from The Link Letter,  Vol. 4 No. 1, March/April 1991.