Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to reshape industries by automating tasks and solving complex problems. The next step in AI’s evolution involves AI agents—generative AI (GenAI) systems designed to operate with a high degree of autonomy and effectiveness within complex environments. Since the launch of ChatGPT, most businesses have focused on implementing chatbot and Retrieval Augmented Generation (RAG) patterns to answer questions about information in their organization. Agent architectures go beyond these patterns and enable more complex goal execution by incorporating sophisticated capabilities like reasoning, planning, reflection, and tool execution. These capabilities help enable businesses to take action, reduce costs, and enhance decision-making across a variety of use cases.

This blog is designed to help IT leaders shape their AI strategies more effectively by exploring the role and capabilities of AI agents in an organization.

Interested in a deeper technical perspective? My team (Sandi Besen - IBM, Mason Sawtell - Neudesic, Alex Chao - Microsoft) and I recently released a more exhaustive and independent report, called “The Landscape of Emerging AI Agent Architectures for Reasoning, Planning, and Tool Calling: A Survey” on ArXiv.

Understanding AI Agents

What are AI Agents?

AI agents are language model powered entities able to plan and take actions to execute goals over multiple iterations. They are designed to perform complex tasks that require human-like understanding, reasoning, and decision-making abilities. Unlike traditional chatbots, which typically handle specific, narrow queries or functions, AI agents are equipped to manage a broad, dynamic set of tasks either autonomously, with a team of other AI agents, or with human feedback. Most agent implementations are set up so that agents can modify their behavior based on the outcomes of their actions, learn from interactions, and perform tasks across different environments and systems.

Capabilities of AI agents

The role of AI agents provides traditional AI functionalities with richer capabilities that include:

  • Advanced reasoning: Beyond responding to queries, AI agents can process the context of a given problem, make logical deductions, and make the next best decision independent of human interaction.
  • Strategic planning: AI agents can break down goals into a series of actionable steps allowing them to solve complex problems.
  • Tool execution: Unlike chatbots that operate within their programmed conversational frameworks, AI agents interact with a variety of digital tools and platforms, enabling them to execute a wide range of tasks dynamically.

Real-world applications of AI agents

AI agents use existing systems and workflows to drive efficiencies, making them truly industry agnostic. Here are a few examples of AI agents at work in various industries.

  • Finance: AI agents can work together to pull together information from various sources, understand the context of these data sources, generate reports based on these findings, and share the results with humans who can validate and distribute the outputs.
  • Information technology: Intelligent Operations (IntelOps) is an overarching term to refer to a collection of AI agents supporting developer (DevOps), financial (FinOps), and security operations (SecOps) operations. Embedded into existing systems, a series of agents can autonomously spin up or down compute environments, flag security risks, conduct root cause analysis, allocate resources, and much more.
  • Healthcare: Agent systems in healthcare can distill key insights from patient charts, clinical data, and lab results making this information readily available to physicians. Agent systems can also enable documentation for various cases allowing healthcare professionals to focus on the patient experience.

Types of AI agent architectures

As the world collectively explores how best to interact with AI, two categories of agent architectures have emerged. We’ll discuss both in more detail below, but, for now, most methods fall under either single- or multi-agent architectures.

  • Single-agent architectures: These are systems that utilize a singular AI entity to manage and execute tasks from initiation to completion. Single agents may be better suited to environments requiring higher levels of precision and control because they are not subject to the influence of other non-grounded agents.
  • Multi-agent architectures: These systems consist of multiple AI entities that work together, sharing information and making decisions collaboratively. This setup excels in complex scenarios where tasks require diverse expertise, cooperative problem-solving, and feedback from multiple perspectives.

Enterprise AI agent implementation considerations

Successfully implementing AI agents requires a thoughtful approach that aligns with the organization's strategic goals and technological capabilities. With these in hand, here’s how we’re advising businesses to effectively integrate these powerful tools.

Choose the right agent architecture

Determining the appropriate AI agent architecture depends on several factors including the complexity of the task, the level of collaboration required, and the desired outcomes. Leaders should consider the following aspects:

  • Task complexity: Simple tasks may benefit from single-agent systems due to their efficiency and direct control, while complex, multifaceted tasks might require the nuanced coordination that multi-agent systems provide.
  • Required collaboration: Tasks that involve multiple stakeholders or that benefit from diverse inputs should consider multi-agent setups to leverage varied perspectives and expertise.

The impact of agent architectures on business strategy

The choice between single-agent and multi-agent systems significantly influences business strategy and operational efficiency. Understanding the fundamental characteristics that make each architecture ideal for specific scenarios can empower leaders to make more informed decisions in their digital transformation efforts.

Both single and multi-agent architectures offer unique advantages and can be used for a variety of use cases. The key to effective implementation lies in understanding these distinctions and applying the right agent pattern to a given challenge.

What is a single-agent system?

Single-agent methods excel in environments that require high consistency and centralized control. These systems extend beyond Language Model capabilities by allowing the agent to plan, call tools, reflect, and revise their approach until they accomplish a task.

Best use cases for single-agent systems

  • Tasks with minimal need for feedback: Suitable for operations that benefit from automation without requiring frequent human intervention or feedback from agents with different personas or skills.
  • Well-defined and straightforward tasks: Ideal for scenarios where only one agent persona and set of tools is needed to solve the problem.

Example of a single-agent system in action

Imagine a personal news curator agent designed to streamline your morning routine. This agent starts its day by querying several trusted news sources to gather the latest headlines and significant stories. After compiling this information, it evaluates the content's relevance and accuracy, reflecting on the gathered data to ensure it aligns with your specific interests and preferences. If necessary, it revises the summary to better meet your expectations before using an automated tool to send this customized news digest directly to your inbox. This process demonstrates the single-agent’s capacity to execute tasks independently, with built-in stages for reflection and adjustment to optimize output quality.

What is a multi-agent system?

Multi-agent systems are best utilized in complex environments where tasks benefit from collaboration, multiple expertise areas, and adaptability. These systems shine when the situation demands flexibility and collective problem-solving capabilities.

Best use cases for multi-agent systems

  • Complex tasks requiring diverse input: Effective in scenarios where different types of expertise and decision-making are needed simultaneously.
  • Dynamic environments with high variability: Suitable for settings where conditions change rapidly and require swift adaptation by various components of the system.

Example of a multi-agent system in action:

In a scenario involving complex event planning, multiple specialized AI agents can work collaboratively, each bringing a unique skill set to the table. One agent focuses on evaluating venue options, another on arranging catering services, and a third on organizing entertainment, all operating under the guidance of a coordinating agent. These agents share information and feedback, dynamically adjusting their contributions based on real-time data and collaborative insights. The coordinating agent ensures that all actions are synergistic and aligned with the overarching goal of delivering a seamless event. This example highlights the multi-agent system's ability to handle diverse, complex tasks that benefit from the integration of multiple expertises, cooperative problem-solving, and defined leadership in the agent team.

Common challenges in integrating AI agents

Mitigating AI privacy and security risks: AI agents require careful consideration of data privacy and security, especially when sensitive information is involved. Instead of overhauling existing protocols, focus on enhancing them to support AI technologies. Start by assessing current security measures in light of AI’s unique demands and incrementally implement improvements. Ensure that these enhancements are practical, such as updating access controls, aligning with existing compliance requirements, and following established responsible AI principles.

Balancing automation: While AI can significantly boost efficiency, replacing human oversight entirely could lead to missed nuances and unintended errors. It's crucial to maintain human-driven processes, especially in high-risk areas, to balance out the automation process. Adding checks for human validation and feedback in agent implementations helps ensure agents are producing complete, accurate outputs.

Leveraging user feedback: User feedback is essential for refining AI functionalities. Designing your AI systems with robust mechanisms to capture ongoing user feedback, will help to continuously improve performance and enhance user satisfaction. Proactive stakeholder engagement during the agent implementation will also help ensure the system performs as needed for the business.

Scalability concerns: Ensuring that AI solutions are scalable and can seamlessly adapt to diverse IT environments is fundamental. This scalability is crucial to fully leveraging AI technologies without overwhelming the existing infrastructure. Understanding how many users the agents need to serve, the frequency of interaction with agents, and the organization’s access to language models will help determine the required capacity and scalability of the agent system.

Managing expectations: With the rapidly evolving capabilities of AI, setting realistic expectations and maintaining clear communication about the possibilities and limitations of AI agents is essential for both strategy development and operational execution.

Effective integration strategies

To navigate these challenges effectively, consider implementing the following strategies:

Gradual implementation: Start with pilot projects to evaluate AI performance and refine the integration process incrementally. This step-by-step approach allows for the identification of potential issues in a controlled environment, facilitating a smoother transition to full-scale deployment.

Cross-functional collaboration: Encourage a collaborative environment where IT, operations, and other relevant departments work together. This not only improves alignment but also maximizes the utilization of AI technologies across various segments of the organization.

Training and support: Equip your staff with the necessary training to adapt to new AI-enhanced workflows. Providing ongoing support is crucial for resolving operational challenges quickly and for keeping the systems efficiently updated.

Preparing for AI-Powered Transformations

Embracing AI necessitates a proactive approach in preparing for potential challenges:

  1. Establish performance baselines: Avoid presumptions about AI efficacy; instead, monitor key performance indicators on a use case by use case basis to gauge performance over time and understand iterative improvement for solutions.
  2. Invest in AI research and development: Tailor AI technologies to your specific needs through increased investment in R&D or collaborations with academic and research institutions.
  3. Develop AI skills: Invest in training programs or supplement with an AI agency to build AI competencies and services, preparing your team to work effectively with advanced AI systems.
  4. Ethical AI use and governance: As AI systems gain autonomy, ethical use and robust governance frameworks become even more crucial. Establish and use responsible AI practices to help guide and align AI operations with core organizational values and government regulations.

By strategically integrating AI technologies today, your business can not only adapt but also maintain a competitive edge as AI trends evolve.

Embracing AI Agents for Strategic Advantage

By understanding and leveraging the capabilities of AI agents, businesses can enhance their strategic operations and position themselves as leaders in the AI era. The future of AI is not just about adopting new technologies but integrating them in ways that redefine what is possible, creating value that extends across the entire organization.

We encourage IT and business leaders to leverage AI consulting firms and consider how AI agents can be integrated into their strategic plans. For further guidance or to explore customized AI solutions, feel free to contact our team or visit our website for more information.