The agent’s purpose

While agency is necessarily agnostic of any purpose, the agent itself cannot exist without a motivation, a mission, an objective, a goal, in order to orient its actions in a meaningful direction. The very essence of ‘meaning’ solely depends on the presence of a purpose from which the agent can derive the most appropriate next step.

For natural agents, this purpose is survival (of the individual) and reproduction (the survival of the species). For companies and corporations, it is making profit. For other forms of organizations, you will even find elaborate explicit mission statements.

Thinking about humans and their ‘purpose in life’, you can easily see that the purpose is context-dependent. As family member, you care for everybody’s well-being; as a consumer, you look for the best value-for-money; as a voter, you want to see your rights protected. All these different objectives are fully independent of one another, but they all affect the individual’s decisions and actions. The trade-offs are complex and often challenging to handle. Entangled in such a meshwork of contexts, we pursue a set of partially conflicting objectives: that recipe for incoherent actions shapes the core of our human identity.

Still, a purpose is vital for any agent to discern the best action in response to an external change. Without this North Star to guide its actions, an ‘agent’ might still be able to act; but those actions would have no orientation or direction: they would only be random.

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

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