Intelligent agents may sound like something out of The Matrix, but smart programs are helping astronomers find out more about the Universe.
The software has been developed to monitor the vast amount of information generated by telescopes and help the scientists track rapid and violent events, like massive supernova explosions.
The software could react quickly to explosions in the skies
The system uses Grid computing technology to share and analyse the data quickly, enabling the software to react quickly.
"What is so important here is that we have developed an intelligent observing system," said Dr Alasdair Allan of the University of Exeter.
"It thinks and reacts for itself, deciding whether something it has discovered is interesting enough to need more observations. If more observations are needed, it just goes ahead and gets them."
The problem facing astronomers is the unpredictability of the Universe. Often many astronomical events happen suddenly and without warning.
It could mean that astronomers miss things like a subtle change in the brightness of stars which may indicate planets in orbit around them.
To deal with this issue, the Intelligent Agents were created by the eScience Telescopes for Astronomical Research project, a joint venture by the University of Exeter and the Liverpool John Moores University.
The Intelligent Agents take advantage of Grid technologies, which allow individual computers to be used as one massive processing resource.
The software was recently used on a major research telescope, the UK Infrared Telescope in Hawaii, with promising results.
The smart programs took live images and compared them with previous infrared maps of the same area.
It detected a dwarf nova - a star which experiences sudden flares in its brightness.
"The Agents can detect and respond to the rapidly changing universe faster than any human, and make decisions to observe an object much faster than would otherwise be possible," explained Dr Allan.
"Only then need they tell their human masters what they're doing."
Dr Allan does not think the software will put astronomers out of a job.
"The Agents can be used to assist human observers, instead of replacing them entirely, augmenting their abilities to do science quicker, faster, and more reliably."
In the future, the software could even be sending messages or images to a mobile phone, alerting an astronomer to new and interesting events in the skies.