'User agent' is a great idea that has been weirdly perverted.

Nobody these days (even highly technical people) has a user agent. (Maybe @drwho does.)

A user agent is a piece of software controlled by the *user*, that performs the automatic tasks the *user* has instructed it to. It communicates with other user agents, automatically, on the user's behalf.

Today, the term 'user agent' means 'long, misleading browser-lineage-identification string'. It identifies one of ~3 corporations.

Imagine if we actually *had* user agents.

Like, imagine if our computers were doing things we wanted them to do, automatically, on the network. And, it was our computers doing these things, instead of a rental service like ifttt or google alerts that's selling info on the back end. Imagine if they stopped doing things when we told them to stop.

Imagine if non-technical users had this too.

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'User agent' is basically 'daemon, but controlled by an end user'. And, it's a thing we really need & don't have.

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@enkiv2 I remember I think it was the early 1990s, lots of talk about 'software agents'. They were sort of the buzzword term, the 'neural networks' of that decade.

I don't really understand even now what lab that hype came from, and why it went away?

@natecull @enkiv2 i've never really found the "software agents" line of thinking very compelling, or at least it hasn't been very compellingly _presented_. it always felt like hype in much the way that VR or that weird brief period when XML was going to save the world did.

on the other hand, if the idea is just that people should own and control computers which do things with their data in their interests, well, that sure does sound like a pleasant contrast to the status quo.

@brennen I can say that even the term "software agent" sounds sort of dull, uninterestingly hands-off, and like something the average person wouldn't think they needed or was qualified to mess with.

Exactly the opposite of the hands-on, approachable, and self-ownership feel that future tech stuff needs to have.

Meaning no offense.
@natecull @enkiv2

@erosdiscordia @brennen @enkiv2

Well, on the one hand, part of the 'software agent' fuss was sort of linked with, um, personal organizers, early handhelds, the idea of an 'electronic butler/secretary' and so there WAS quite a bit of that 'hands-on, approachable' hype about it? You'd have a personal 'Agent' who would be a sort of pseudo-personality in your computer?

But then the other side of the 'software agents' thing was... mobile code, that you'd transmit? I guess 'cloud server' ate that?


@natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen @enkiv2 part of the issue is that "software agents" was used in the late 90s to mean a lot of different peripherally related things… mobile code, filtering rules, ifttt-type triggers, and I think even at one point program trading (of securities)

@kragen @natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen

I think they really are all user agents, because user agent is a term not specific to function.

Anything that is automated but also controlled by a non-technical end user is a user agent.

So the promise is that you can *use* a team of interacting user agents, and each one of them would do a different specific thing, in response perhaps to a user agent whose job was coordinating plans with the user.

@kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen @enkiv2

oh, definitely!

That's part of the weirdness around the term. It got generalised to the point where it meant 'any program doing anything' and at that point.... why even use it?

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Something that got lost in translation is that user agents should be communicating with each other. I think if we had a "user agent communication standard", even if we just renamed jabber, it would be less of an issue.

Download a new user agent from 'inhuman resources' or 'central casting' to do a particular job & it checks in with your assistant agent to plug into your planner system, whatever.

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

aaand InhumanResources will be hacked with garbage agents just like app stores and npm repositories in 3, 2...

The problem with Extremely Large Corporations is that people think having an ELC's name on it makes a product/service secure.

@enkiv2 @natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen This is wrong, historically speaking. AFAIK the origin of the term "user agent" is in email; it's in e.g. tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1341 from 1992. Also in POP3 tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1081 from 1988. In hat context there was definitely not the idea that one user would usually have several agents or that the agents would talk to each other directly. In 1982 RFC 822 doesn't say "user agent" and uses "agent" in an incompatible way.

@kragen @natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen
That chronology can't be right. The term 'user agent' was used in science fiction in this way in the mid 80s, at the latest.

I'll take a look, but I've got a sneaking suspicion that the idea of a user agent is about as old as the idea of the filter bubble (the 'Daily Me' proposed at Negroponte's lab in the late 70s) or the Internet of Things ('Ubiquitous Computing' at PARC around 1979).

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

'Agent' has been a term of art in mail handling for a while, hasn't it? 'Mail User Agent' 'Message Transfer Agent' . Makes sense that HTTP inherited SMTP terminology.

But where did that 'agent' terminology come from, I wonder? And when? Mid-1980s, I assume?

@natecull @enkiv2 @erosdiscordia @brennen Well, those RFCs suggest that it wasn't current in the Internet mail world in 1982, and in 1988 required explanation, so sometime between 1982 and 1988. I suspect they might be loanwords from OSI X.400.

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

As kragen said, RFC 822 (1982) uses the term agent:

'AGENT (person, system or process)'

which makes sense that it was an abstracted concept for 'person or system' in, I guess, DARPA systems thinking around then?

@natecull @enkiv2 @erosdiscordia @brennen Read it more carefully, though; it's talking about secretaries or people loaning you their terminals, not Rmail.

@kragen @enkiv2 @erosdiscordia @brennen

Person *or* program.

<< The Sender mailbox specification includes a word sequence which must correspond to a specific agent (i.e., a human user or a computer program) rather than a standard address. ... For example in the case of a shared login name, the name, by itself, would not be adequate. >>

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Wikipedia is claiming that the concept of the software agent has its origin in the actor model (so, early 1970s). This makes sense: 'agent' and 'actor' share etymology, & 'agent' is a less misleading way to express 'one who performs actions' -- particularly 'one who acts on behalf of another'.

Actor model has, inside it, the assumption that agents communicate with other agents.

@enkiv2 @natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen That's probably a rogue edit by Carl before he got banned from Wikipedia for claiming everything cames from acors

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Note that 'Wikipedia' in this case is Carl Hewitt, who tends to spam references to his Actor model *everywhere* and annoys the editors by doing so.

I would take all references to the Actor model as having priority with a grain of salt.

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

But here's another reference to 'agent' in RFC 822, suggesting it was in use in 1981 to mean 'automated computer system process'

Not in the early-90s sense of the agent-hype phase, no. But presumably all terms originate somewhere.

<< Oppen, D.C. and Dalal, Y.K. "The Clearinghouse: A Decentralized Agent for Locating Named Objects in a Distributed Environment," OPD-T8103. Xerox Office Products Division: Palo Alto, CA. (October 1981).

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

<< Binding is an important architectural component of
a distributed system, and the clearinghouse serves the role of
"glue" that binds together the
many loosely-coupled, network·visible objects. >>

huh is that why Novell Netware always called its 'registry' equivalent 'the bindery'? Always thought that was a weird name.

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

But I assume that 'agent' must have been a term in use in network thinking in military/science thinking in 1981 to mean 'anything that acts on the system', ie a person, an organisation, an automated system.

A 'software agent' would then specifically be an agent which was software, so, not hardware and not a person.

Talk of *software* agents then would have arisen in a later environment where software was more decoupled from hardware.

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

There are hits for both 'software agent' and 'user agent' in literature from before 1980, though (as you'd expect) not many:

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

I wonder what they are!

Amusingly that 1981 Xerox paper refers to 'internetworking' and 'internetwork' but not yet 'internet protocol'. By 'internetwork' did they still mean 'inter-LAN'?

<< Although the content of this paper does not depend on any particular networking configuration, we will use as an example throughout this paper the Ethernet and its associated Pup-based or Xerox Network Systems-based internetwork routing machinery. >>

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen


Rule-directed Interactive Transaction Agents: An Approach to Knowledge Acquisition : a Report Prepared for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency by Donald Arthur Waterman, 1978:

"A user agent is a program that can act as an interface between the user and [...]"


@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Makes sense! DARPA terminology and framing of the problem would always precede use of the term in a DARPA product (eg SMTP)

So 'user agent' in 1978, but as a broader clas of 'transaction agent'?

I guess 'transaction' was a very common term then for 'activity on a computer system'. On-Line Transaction Processing.

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

It's interesting that we've moved from 'user agent' to 'user INTERFACE', a subtle shift that downgrades the abilities of the agent to just... something like a control panel for a machine.

Though an app today is still a kind of user agent (has credentials to do things on the user's behalf) but we don't tend to use that term...

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

It's too bad I can't tell what this book is, because it looks like a fascinating read & a clear example of the 90s use of 'user agent'.


It may not be 1977 (just like the title probably isn't "P") but it's clearly pre-90s & probably pre-80s based on the typeface.

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

"A user agent is a relatively small program that can reside in a user's terminal (or in a portion of a remote timesharing system) to act as an interface between the user and..."

So also 'user interface' being born around here.

C-3P0 in Star Wars ("human-cyborg relations") I think is an example of a reflection in art of what was being actively discussed around then.

The idea that computers would be so complex we'd need other computers to talk to them.

@natecull @enkiv2 @erosdiscordia @brennen Also e.g. the CDC 6600 had small computers to let you talk to the big computer (I forget if they were called "peripheral processors" but that's what, e.g., the chip in the BeagleBoard Black calls them). The Cray-1 was designed with a similar idea, and of course the VT100 and all of DEC's later terminals were actually computers. Other companies did this too; e.g., the HP 3000 terminals had command-line editing and dynamically-allocated scrollback buffers.

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Correction: 'P' appears to be a corrupted duplicate copy of "Exemplary Programming in RITA" by Waterman again.

Looks like Waterman at RAND either invented or popularized the idea of a user agent as a software agent sitting between the user & other 'agent'-style programs, in the mid-70s.


@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

ha, Waterman also wrote a 1986 'Guide to Expert Systems' so he was in on all the buzzword loops

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@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Here's the email connection:

The example user agent in the RITA documentation was for email.

Looks like RITA was a general purpose system for building interactive autonomous agents that could communicate, & that this example influenced mail programs on platforms that weren't built around this model.


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@natecull @enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Interesting conversation.

On #Plan9 based operating systems there are at least 2 user agents of note: the #plumber (for automation) and the #factotum (for authentication).


@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

... frankly I don't think software agents ever took off, except in the restricted form of 'install wizards' and such. I think they're tied fairly heavily to the idea of 'mobile code' that, eg, Java was initially aiming at.

They would be something like 'distributed apps' I think and with all the security challenges associated.

The 'service/server' model, tied to hardware, was initially easier to deploy.

@natecull @enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen It was proposed as an alternative to the word daemon, because it made some people uncomfortable.

@natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen I think the RFC-821/822 sense of "agent" is the thing you put in the MAIL FROM: field, i.e. where you want the bounces to go. It might be Nate or it might be Nate's secretary or it might be LISTSERV, but it won't be Eudora/Rmail/Elm/PINE/trn, which is the 1988 MIME sense of "user agent". The 1978 Waterman book looks like the modern sense of "user agent" and may be its origin; great scholarship, @enkiv2!

@enkiv2 @natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen The term "agent", I think, but I can't think of any examples of "user agent" from science fiction from that time. Maybe I'm just not well-read enough, though; I look forward to your citations!

Certainly the *concept* of software agents, if not the term, is from the 70s or earlier, as you say.

@natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen I should amend this toot so it doesn't mislead anyone else: downthread, @enkiv2 did in fact find a 1978 reference ("RITA", Waterman & Gillogly) showing "user agent" used to mean specifically this kind of intelligent rule-directed planning agent, and it looks like the circa-1988 adoption of the term for more limited email programs derived from this. So I was wrong!

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