Organizations as artificial agents

Unlike the natural agents, which are born, artificial agents come into existence through human action. They are human-made, human artefacts; artificial agents spring from human agency. However, not everything that humans create has agency: a pen, a hammer, a wheel clearly don’t; even a car, a computer or a power plant don’t. In fact, the number of human-made agents is surprisingly small. I will introduce them as three groups that are not perfectly delineated: organizations (see below), technologies, and socio-technical systems. The partial overlaps between these groups will shed light on the different ways in which human agency gives rise to artificial agency.

We use organizations to structure our interactions with others, be that for social, political, or economic purposes. They come in many shapes and guises: some are natural kinship structures (families, tribes), others are veritable public institutions (the state, the court, the church), some are formally established legal persons (companies, foundations), yet others are voluntary groupings of like-minded people (clubs, associations). And you can easily imagine many kinds of blends between these examples: the evolution from tribes and clans towards nation states, the transition from a family business to a multinational corporation, a soccer team’s fanclub turning from cheerful afficionados to zealous fanatics. To illustrate the spectrum of possible complexity, two concrete cases will be helpful: a family and an international organization.

To take a simple example, think about a large family:

  • Though it does not have a definitive birth date, you can trace its origins back in time. And you know its main mission: ensure the well-being and prosperity of its members.
  • Those members effectively are the ‘body’ of the family. They are the sensors (picking up the signals and the gossip floating around) and the actors (dealing with the outside world).
  • A family has some hierarchy (a patriarch, a matriarch, ‘the elders’) for decision-making and resolution of internal conflicts. These procedures are rarely laid down in writing, because they are usually defined by traditions and customs.

As an example of a formal public institution, consider an international organization, the United Nations:

  • It was established (the technical for the ‘birth’ of an organization) through a Charter that defines the purpose and principles under which the UN operate.
  • It has a ‘body’, most visibly the iconic UN headquarters in New York City, with its national representatives and the UN staff.
  • It has considerable sensing capabilities through formal reporting and general information gathering.
  • It has an articulate decision-making apparatus, with the Security Council at the top, and many subordinate committees.
  • It has the means to interact with the world, including the people that make up its body, the budget used to run dedicated programmes, and the decisions taken, e.g., the Security Council Resolutions.

Notwithstanding the obvious differences in scale and scope, these two examples illustrate the common characteristics shared by all organizations: they consist of many members and still can “act as one”; they have the authority and the means to “take action by themselves”. Whether authority and means come naturally (as in a large family) or an entity is intentionally endowed with them (as in the case of the UN), an organization exhibits ‘life-like’ behaviour, at least within limits. It is no accident that the words ‘organization’ and ‘organism’ share a common root.

This is the third in a series of posts on the agency and how it matters to innovation.

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