NOTE: Wired is in the process of reworking their archives, so this will
soon be replaced with a link to their final, slightly edited version.
My Problem with Agents
by Jaron Lanier
Intelligent Agents stink. Agents are those programs that are supposed to
get to know you and act autonomously on your behalf, finding you music you'd
like to listen to over the net, for instance. Proponents say agents will
make everyone more effective in the hypernetworked world we're entering
by giving them a virtual support staff. I'm concerned that agents will
be to the web what commercials were to television; something that seemed
like a practical idea that instead has the effect of making the whole enterprise
ugly and stupid.
Proponents pose agents as the next stage in sophistication for interface
design. My experience is that "autonomy" tends to make programmers
lazy and user interfaces worse. It is easier for a programmer to say a
program is autonomous because then it has the right to be quirky.
Proponents say that traditional concerns about user interface will be less
important because agents will be smart enough to figure out what we want
anyway. This is where I get really scared. I am concerned that people
will gradually, and perhaps not even consciously, adjust their lives in
order to make agents appear to be smart. If an agent seems smart, it might
really mean that a person has dumbed herself down to make her life more
easily representable by the agent's data base design.
This is a serious problem because it could sneak up on us. People are so
much more flexible than computers, and so prone to suggestion. Novices
already tend to defer to computers, blaming themselves when a computer is
hard to use. Agents would present users with a path of least resistance,
reflecting the life pattern and catagory typology built into the agent's
database. Many of us are already leading lives that are designed to be
favorably assessed by the crude databases that calculate our credit ratings.
Imagine if our tastes in literature, surgeons, and blind dates were influenced
in the same way. Agents would be, like the television commercial, a simple
device that causes a grand decrease in the beauty and intelligence of our
Both Nicolas Negroponte and Pattie Maes have made the argument that agents
will serve as a social equalizer, giving the disadvantaged access to the
tools and staff formerly available only to the rich. Truly disadvantaged
people are those that need food and shelter, of course, not more net tools.
But to play along, can a middle class person really be empowered by a software
In order for an agent to seem autonomous, you have to choose to not look
at or understand its guts. If you tweak its guts directly, you're back
in the stone ages of "direct manipulation". Instead of consciously
composing a query, in Alta Vista, say, for the kind of music you want to
find, you let the query get constructed automatically by a program that
assesses the music you've been listening to.
What if this was happening with something more serious than your choice
of singers? What if agents were shopping for your medicine and your kid's
education? Then they would open you up for a new category of abuse. Agents
won't be innocent and unbothered little servant programs. Today's advertising
agencies will become tomorrow's counter-agent agencies. This might involve
fancy hacking, but it might also be softer. Counteragencies will gain information
about agent innards in order to attract them, like flowers wooing bees.
Regular netizens won't have this information, so they will attract no bees
and become invisible.
In answer to all the objections above, proponents suggest that agents will
evolve to become better, and that we need to put up with them in the meantime
to help them evolve. Proponents have so much faith that agents will one
day be bearers of authentic wisdom that they are willing to ask us all to
endure an indefinite intermediate period of plainly inadequate agents.
Bad science thrives on the most difficult problems; we are more careful
about the easy ones. The most complicated thing we can study now is the
mind, so it's vulnerable to the most overreaching theories. (The economy
might come in at second place.) A long, tragic litany of inadequate ideas
about the mind have been accepted as fact by large numbers of smart people,
even though their originators were generally more nuanced. Think of Freud,
Skinner, Marx, est, codependency, The Bell Curve. Agents are another in
this series. They claim to understand us well enough to be autonomous servants,
and we might be ready to accept the claim uncritically, because we know
so little about how people really think.
It's bad enough when we are made into suckers by books, TV and other old
media. With agents we would be building inadequate ideas about ourselves
into the functional fabric of our actions.
The whole point of the net is the empowerment of the people, not the computers.
That only happens if people choose to be empowered. Let's not blow this
chance for more human autonomy because we're caught up in the fantasy of
Go back to Jaron's