Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Agency and the Internet of Things / Everything (IoT or IoE.. You choose!)

As the word Agency starts to gain credence and regain it's original meaning, the state of being in control, we are starting to understand it's importance. Sentient entities have the capacity to have agency. I gave my Smart TV (made dumb) another chance the other day, the first thing it did after I gave it a glimpse of the Internet was to delete two of it's Apps. I had not made this request, clearly Samsung thinks the device is theirs and not mine, I have no means of controlling how it uses it's Smarts, thus it was disconnected again. At the same time Apple are making a veiled attempt to give me control over my iPhone. They have introduced a means of controlling Advertising on the device. "Your challenge should you accept it, is to find the control... this tape will self destruct in 10 seconds" OK, clearly the mission isn't actually impossible, but give yourself 1000 points if you opened settings and went straight to the "About" section.

Agency is something we should work hard to retain, for when it is lost, it will be very difficult to regain. Put at its most basic; Freedom is a result of having Agency. Many of the worlds constitutions aim to keep their citizens safely in control of their lives. (That word "safely" has many implications)

As the number of Things in our worlds gain the ability to behave in an apparently sentient manner we should be very wary of who is actually in control of those Things.

A recent experience in our conservatory got me into hot water, the conservatory lights are controlled by X10 switches. My wife started complaining that the lights had started to have "a mind of their own" (a very agency laden phrase!) After two weeks I tracked down the issue to a subtly hidden infra-red detector that had previously been programmed to switch on the lights if movement had been detected. No names, but I had shown the controlling device to another member of my family, who presumably thought it would be fun to hide the detector in the lounge, facing in such a way that the conservatory lights would be triggered at seemingly random intervals.

In an old episode of StarTrek: The Next Generation, based solely on the concept of Agency. "Data" was triggered by his creator to return home, and he used his Cyber Hacking skills to take over the Starship Enterprise, over-riding any number of security controls to take on the Identity of the Captain and add his own security layer that locked the Captain from taking control of his own vessel. Data's creator had even gone to the lengths of locking "Data" out of his own memories of the event.

Agency will become a very important aspect of the Internet of Things or Everything depending which hype laden article you read, and thus Identity and Entitlement services will be crucial. Sadly just as with all things related to Safety and Security they are generally added after the fact, rather than built in.

If I had my druthers (an 1870's American term for Agency, being a contraction of "would-rathers") I would ensure that everything I owned was in my control, and as the things become harder to control I would have an Agent acting on my part to help me deliver the control required.

Any one remember having to manipulate the choke on the carburettor? My guess is that few of the Nintendo generation will have experienced the joys of flooding a petrol engine, especially not under the withering look of a father, who being ever so competent at all things mechanical, could manipulate the choke in his sleep.

The interfaces involved in controlling complex machinery reduce to fewer and simpler. Designing natural interface, or controls that offer Affordance, another key aspect of Agency, is not as simple as it looks.

Services in the Internet of Everything world must offer Agency to the right folks at the right time with the right degree of Affordance. (Not the affordability that pertains to the cost of the service... look it up!) After all you don't want to be like Jean-Luc having to separate the saucer section while travelling at warp speed in order to regain some semblance of control.

So all you folks designing Everything that will connect to the Internet, design Agency in, and be very careful about assuming that your clients don't want any of it....

Perhaps more importantly to all folks designing Agents here is my list in order of importance of the Agents that I want

Software Update Agent: Allows for the automated update or deletion of software under my control, not the control of Samsung or Apple.
Security Agents (I suspect there will be more than one) My use of the OpenDNS service best exemplifies this service, good luck trying to access pornography from my household!. I have four buttons to press to select how aggressive the filtering is, note to self don't use the highest level again, as it stops key folks in the household accessing Social Media! Bad Idea!
Identity Agents
Agency Agent (This one makes my head hurt but think of it as the Butler that manages all the other Servants to ensure a smoothly run life!)
Entitlement Agents: Manage my Entitlements, both those bestowed on me as well as those I bestow on others.
Contract Agents: Arguably a join of Identity and Entitlement agents. Would manage all the contracts that cost me or gain me wealth.
Energy Agent : Would manage the energy hungry devices in my world to consume at cheaper rates, or lower levels.
Home Automation Agents: We've touched on these...
Garden Agents: Water my greenhouse when it needs it, I am fed up of withering or waterlogged seedlings!

Agents, are in my mind like Fire and Forget weapons, rather than the Fire, Ready, Aim wire guided missiles that still need the continued involvement of their operator.

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