JB: On a Utopian level you're talking about designing agents at MIT Media
Lab as pure research. That's a very different situation than the real world
where these technologies are going to be implemented by corporations that
are interested in selling things. Unless you configure your own agent, or
you retain a service where the agent is strictly controlled by you, the
computer user is going to be served by an agent of a search engine company
or a bookselling company or a catalog company, etc. Once such corporations
find out you want x or y or z, you begin to lose what remains of your
privacy, then you lose your identity by becoming an economic cipher to the
new band of info-transactional conglomerates. You're going to be targeted
for direct mail, unsolicited email, and pretty soon they're selling your
home phone number, your blood type, your medical profile. And if any
governmental agency wants your information, you better believe they will be
able to get it without the benefit of a subpoena.
Another problem is that one of the characteristics that agents seem to have
in common and which again distinguishes them from other software is that
they know about you. But would they know if you're a jerk and would they
tell you if they did?
Another problem is that one of the characteristics that agents seem to have in common and which again distinguishes them from other software is that they know about you. But would they know if you're a jerk and would they tell you if they did?
MAES: That would be nice actually. But let me first answer your concerns. What is important is that the information these agents have about you is yours and only yours; it is completely up to you to decide and specify who gets access to what information. This is one of the reasons I talk of these agents as extensions of yourself. There's a lot of very personal information in your head, and you control what information you release to whom.
JB: Don't you think that it's naive to think that's going to happen?
MAES: No it isn't, because in fact there is already a standard that has been proposed to the W-3 consortium, the OPS standard - open profiling standards - which has been proposed by Firefly and Netscape, and then afterwards Microsoft joined as well. That standard specifies how personal information about a user could be stored in the browser, and it also specifies that information would be the property of the user, and that the user will be able to specify that every time a site asks for certain information for example, the user will specify which information can be given to that site and what can be given to that site. This is similar to cookies, but cookies done in the right way. The difference between cookies and the OPS standard is that you will know what the site is asking for. A site is asking for my taste in x or y, or another site is asking for my age, or my this or my that, and you can say no, I'm not going to give it to you - or if you think you can get a value out of it, out of giving it to that site, you will give it.
Privacy is one of the primary problems we have to get right if we want agent technology to be widely adopted, and so we've been very concerned with this, even though as you say I'm a researcher, and it's not necessarily my concern, we've been very involved in this issue and making sure it will belong to the user, that none of that information is accessible to anyone except the user, that when it gets passed it is encrypted so it can't be stolen from you. It's always made clear who is asking for it and for what, and you have to give approval to anyone who asks for it.