Intelligent 'agents' to help online shoppers find bargains

'Negotiation Ninjas' use heuristics technology to find optimum price
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Electronics website Aroxo is set to launch software 'agents' which use artificial intelligence technology to negotiate product prices on behalf of online shoppers and sellers.

According to BBC News, the so-called 'Negotiation Ninjas', developed by Southampton University scientists, will be trialled this autumn and should be fully operational by the Christmas shopping season.

To use one of the agents, sellers answer questions about how eager they are to make a sale, how much of a discount they are prepared to offer and whether they would be prepared to go lower under certain circumstances.

A potential buyer has to enter the name of the item they wish to purchase and the price they would like to pay for it. The Negotiation Ninja then searches lists of sellers willing to accept a price similar to the one offered and if there is a match the seller can reply with a personalised offer. If the buyer chooses to negotiate, the agent analyses the seller's criteria to see if a better offer can be made.

The agents use a set of simple rules, called heuristics, to find the best price for both buyer and seller. Heuristics are also used in technology such as antivirus software to find the optimal solution to a problem that could have a number of answers.

"If you can't analyse mathematically exactly what you should do, which you can't in general for these sorts of systems, then you end up with heuristics," Professor Nick Jennings, one of the researchers behind the project, told the BBC. "We use heuristics to determine what price we should offer during the negotiation - and also how we might deal with multiple negotiations at the same time.”

While the Negotiation Ninjas are free to use, sellers will pay 0.3 per cent of their original asking price to contact a buyer.

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