Friday, February 26, 2010

What is the unit of agency?

A software agent is a piece of computer software that exhibits the quality of agency, but that begs two more fundamental questions:

  1. What is agency?
  2. What is the unit of agency?

An alternative formulation would be:

How can we distinguish qualities of software that constitute agency from qualities that would not constitute agency?

Ideally, we would like to identify sub-qualities of agency so that we ultimately can judge the quality of the agency qualities of a software agent.

I actually do currently have a definition of agency on my web site:

Agency is the capacity of an entity to continually sense its environment, make decisions based on that sensory input, and to act out those decisions in its environment without (in general) requiring control by or permission from entities with which the entity is associated.

The hallmarks of agency are reactivity (timely response to changes in the environment), goal-oriented (not simply responding to the environment according to a pre-determined script), autonomy (having its own agenda), interactive (with its environment and other entities), flexibility, and adaptability.

An entity which has the qualities associated with agency is referred to as an agent.

An agent which operates within the realm of software systems is referred to as a software agent.  Agency, being an agent, or having the qualities of agency do not imply anything to do with software.

But, I am not entirely happy with that definition and I am thinking about how to refine it.

Another way of phrasing the headline question is to ask what the smallest and simplest agent would look like.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Where is my personal data cloud?

A topic that I intend to do more thinking and writing about is the personal cloud, or more specifically, the personal data cloud or personal information cloud. As I was gathering my personal information to organize my FOAF profile page I began thinking about whether FOAF really was the best place to be the primary repository for this personal information of mine, or not.

One of the things I quickly realized was that I had pulled together a variety of pieces of disparate information. In other words, my FOAF profile page was an aggregation of diverse data. I would not call my FOAF profile page itself a cloud, but I would call the un-aggregated data a cloud for sure.

So, we have two distinct but related concepts: 1) a cloud of unaggregated data, and 2) a hub of aggregated data. We can consider aggregation or hub tools such as FOAF as cloud aggregation tools. I suppose we could speak of cloud hubs as well.

Layered on top of that, we can consider an interconnected web of FOAF profiles (the basic original purpose of FOAF) as a FOAF cloud. A database built by crawling all or a portion of the FOAF cloud could be considered a FOAF hub. Any tool for displaying, manipulating, and navigating such a database could be considered a FOAF hub tool.

So, this is another key concept: layering of clouds. A cloud can consist of a network or other clouds, and so on ad infinitum.

Back to my own FOAF profile, sure, technically, my one small FOAF profile represents a small cloud itself. Technically. But what I really want to do is to represent and store each of those pieces of information as entities in their own right, separate from this specific aggregation tool of a FOAF profile. After all, there are other aggregation tools, such as vCard, LinkedIn, or just about any social networking site, or your address book or personal information manager application.

So, this suggests that as important as aggregation tools are, we need to give a lot more consideration to how the underlying personal data cloud to conceptualized and represented. In theory, I should be able to pull my FOAF profile together 100% automatically with absolutely zero manual intervention required by simple granting a FOAF aggregation tool access to my personal data cloud. Obviously we are not there yet.

There are two key questions here: 1) what does a personal cloud look like, and 2) where exactly does this cloud actually exist, besides in your head.

Oh, sure, I know the conventional answer these days: It's just a Google app; Google owns all of your data - just get over it. But, to me, it seems that somehow there is something fundamentally wrong with that picture. There is a lot more to the problem, let alone the solutions, than just the one word, "Google".

-- Jack Krupansky