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Choreographed Intelligent Agents: Empirical Research, Socio-Cultural Effects, and Related Ethical Issues

- Thomas Cooper, Ph.D., Emerson College (bio)


The incoming generation of technology features choreographed intelligent agents as a key cog  in the software/hardware convergence infrastructure. Although elementary agents such as search engines (cf. ‘Bots’) have been commonplace, using new agent types in fascinating combinations – i.e. choreographing them – will be much more of a standard feature of the next generation of technology. 
This paper introduces agent choreography, as well as empirical research about agents and relevant empirical research literature.  Recommendations regarding empirical research about the implementation and socio-cultural effects of choreographed agents  are provided.  In a related vein an analysis of the likely socio-cultural effects and germane ethical issues introduced by agents and by multiple agent interaction (cf. choreography) is presented based upon empirical agent research to date, the findings of empirical research in other disciplines, and research conducted about related technologies. 


The arriving generation of technology increasingly features choreographed intelligent agents, also known as multi-agent or interactive agent systems.  This essay will introduce agents, explain choreographed agency, discuss what is known empirically about agents and what ought to be known and tested from an empirical standpoint, and finally make recommendations.   An analysis of likely socio-cultural effects, and especially of some possible ethical issues associated with implementation of agent technical systems, will be presented.  Some of these likely effects and potential ethical issues seem closely linked.

What are Agents and Choreography?

Millions of people have been introduced to agents by using Internet search engines and  other automated software devices which replace, enhance, and accelerate human processes.  The Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents has roughly defined such an agent as:

an entity that resides in environments where it interprets “sensor’  data that reflect events in the environment and executes ‘motor’ commands that produce effects in the environment (FIPA, , 1998).

In less technical terms, an agent is smart software that autonomously and often repetitively performs computer or computer-like tasks on a person’s behalf.  An agent might automatically send e-mail birthday cards on the correct dates of each year, locate new research about a topic as it becomes available on-line, book travel to Tokyo or London every month, or launch missiles at designated targets whenever specific airspace is invaded.  Potentially, sophisticated agents may act as an individual’s concierge, para-legal, operations director, secretary, assistant, travel agent, researcher, and similar functions.  

Choreographed or interactive agents are entire systems of linked agents that can perform more complex assignments such as functioning as a mailing house for a company.  Such a multi-agent mailing system could simultaneously mail bulk messages or publicity, send auto-replies to incoming messages, selectively forward replies, and at the same time add, drop, and correct addresses.  Choreographed systems might also serve as the nervous system for an Artificial Intelligence complex or robot, sell and distribute products on-line, provide multiple options for someone who is “lonely” on-line, write hourly news updates, and eventually coordinate elaborate power grids, weapons systems, and internationally interactive databases.   (Christians and Cooper, 1998)

Agent Expansion and Cultural Impact

Without knowing it many publics worldwide have begun using intelligent agents.  For example, search engines are all but routinely provided to those who purchase access to the Internet. However, little if any thought seems to be given to the impact that choreographed agents might have upon the cultures into which they are introduced.  Yet it is widely known that the previous introduction of  communication technologies into specific cultures and regions  has had marked impact.

Consider, for example, the specific case of  the Pacific region. Empirical research, especially that published in PTC Proceedings and the Pacific Telecommunications Review, and field work, such as by Ogden (1991), Varan (1993), Plange (1993) and in documentaries by O’Rourke  (1987), and Gardner  (2000) suggest that technologies introduced into the Pacific may have both expected and unanticipated socio-cultural effects.   For example, Ogden  (1991) noted that the impact of television in Palau and The Marshall Islands led to instances of young people disrespecting and ignoring their elders in ways that disrupted traditional society.  O’Rourke (1987) observed that a tiny island such as Yap, after the introduction of television, was socially influenced to depend upon unnecessary consumer products, and Varan (1993) noted that students in the Cook Islands who watched late night TV fell asleep in classes, that violent videogames replaced peaceful traditional childrens' games, and that island girls began to aspire to unattainable and cosmetic ideals of female beauty.

If there are studied effects (too many to be fully listed here) of television, radio, VCRs, video games, and the Internet within the Pacific, it seems both likely and logical that  choreographed agents will have Pacific impact as well.   Moreover, as early as 1998 the Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents was hosted in Osaka, Japan, with participants from Comtec, Hitachi, Fujitsu, JVC, Matsushita, NHK, NTT, and Tohoku University in attendance ( ). There can be no doubt that there are, on the one hand, key players in the development and implementation of agents in the Pacific as well as, on the other hand, entire countries, villages, and islands that are unaware of the possible pending effects of choreographed agents. 

However, this is but one example.  Research seems non-existent about the possible effects of choreographed agents in, for example, Latin American or Africa.  Nevertheless, such technology is being developed and introduced wherever there is access to the Internet.  However, intelligent researched human thinking about whether Artificial Intelligence embedded within computers will transform specific societies in similar or different ways is difficult to obtain.

What is Known Empirically About Agents?

It is far better to have empirical and scientific knowledge about a new technology than merely anecdotal or undocumented reports.   Fortunately, a growing scholarly and technical literature has emerged to surround agent development, although not around socio-cultural effects.  Layton and Isbister have provided a sizable literature review of agent research in 2000 ( ). Their analysis of the literature concludes that there are primarily two types of substantial research, one concerning the more publicly widespread “filtering” agents, including search and other autonomous engines for users. The second type covers a wider range of agent bridge functions that might assist users to obtain any large number of goals.   It is within this second literature that the expressive qualities of “characters”, and thus the thin line between “intelligent” software and human behavior are being discussed and debated.  Isbister and Layton found that an important list of issues, which include trust, user control, customization, repair, security, privacy and especially anthropomorphism, are being discussed within the mushrooming literature.

Scholarly literature reviews are more important when their analysis reveals a summary  overview.   One of the best empirical overviews of agent research is presented by Nwana and Ndumu(1999) within their eye-opening paper, “A Perspective on Software Agents Research”  ( After assessing research from the final five years of the twentieth century, the authors conclude that despite much progress in the development of agents, serious problems still remain in the advancement of multiple agent systems. In short they conclude that insufficient work has been dedicated to the problems of ontology, legacy, and the context by which agents interact and fully understand each other.  In other words, Nwana and Ndumu note how much research addresses the trees but not enough addresses the forest.  Therefore, far more attention needs to be paid to holistic or systemic approaches to agent choreography if agents are to function in concert. Refinement of agent “teamwork” must become a theme of the current decade.

What Ought to be Known About Agents?

Research to date seems far more focused upon the functionality, design, tasks and technical requirements for software than upon the possible socio-cultural effects of agents.  Hence, after a review of existing literature and of research overviews it is the conclusion of this essay that not only are Nwana and Ndumu’s recommendations valid – more systemic or holistic research is needed – but also a campaign for predictive and preventive socio-cultural empirical research should be undertaken as well.  Moreover, a specific subset of these effects raise discrete ethical issues (to be discussed later), issues warranting a large number of studies and significant body of literature.

Before elaborating upon how the black holes in agent research might best be filled, it is important to note that there are already a few initial steps in that direction.  For example, the entire discussion about whether or not Artificial Intelligence will ever be “alive” often considers the possible societal and moral consequences of having machines perform as humans.  Moreover, there are scholars investigating the agent field such as Abe Momdani and Jeremy Pitt in England who are fully aware that intelligent agents are not autonomous but are owned, and consequently must be studied as part of society  (see Pitt’s  Alfebiite Project at ). Such initial steps will beget others but are currently the exception, not the rule.

Given the dearth of agent effects research, it is valuable to study “next-of-kin” empirical research and analysis for its possible relevance if applied to new and relatively untested technologies.  For example, although the effects of combining agents are largely untested, there have nevertheless been important breakthroughs in testing interactivity or combination processes in such fields as toxicology and bio-chemistry.  In such studies, as with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in physics, it has been demonstrated that interaction (or, in Heisenbeg’s terms, observation) of itself may produce discrete effects.  For example, U.S. toxicologists have perceived: 

A step toward recognizing multiple agents. The National Academy of Science Committee notes that two or more additives can act synergistically to promote high-tumor yield in animals, whereas separately they do not (Hall, 61).

Similarly, in his landmark research text Food for Nought (Harper & Row, 1974),  Canadian bio-chemist Ross Hume Hall  concluded that chemical additives used in food production might have one effect upon food if tested separately,  but when tested in combination  with other chemical additives might behave entirely differently.  (Hall, 62) What is important about such research is the importance it gives to interaction. 

Two important bodies of literature exist about the history of technology and its effects. The first, which includes works  by Lin White, Seigfried Giedion, Lewis Mumford, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and others, has already suggested that technologies have specific effects upon their environments and audiences.  Based more upon qualitative, theoretical, and historical research, this quasi-deterministic and sometimes fully deterministic literature suggests that specific technologies such as the printing press and parchment scrolls have transformed particular societies and altered the senses (and their ratio)  used to communicate.   The second literature, as typified  by George Gerbner, Larry Gross, Ellen Wartella, and many others, depends far more upon specific empirical quantitative studies which test the effects of a specific communication technology – typically television – upon modern audiences.

However, within both these literatures the combined effects of interactive media are minimally discussed. For example, if some societies in remote islands and impoverished countries had no electronic media until the 1980s and 1990s (and some are still totally without), what does it mean for an island or country to now encounter multiple technologies – television, the Internet, agents, the VCR, the CD, satellite, the DVD, fax, and others – simultaneously?   The interaction of multiple media is important as it may create combined effects such as noise pollution, Wurham’s “information anxiety” (the feeling of not being able to keep up with information), conflicting perceptions of truth, sensory ratio shifts, confusion, multi-cultural conflict, global connectivity, commercialization, social “progress”, business competition, and other effects, some positive, some negative, some neutral, some mixed, and some unknown.  These combined, often hidden effects, arrive almost as drastically in post-modern, industrialized societies as well since the accelerated introduction  of untested communication technologies resembles a perpetual motion machine.

Choreographed agents present a web of software interactivity within a larger complex of multi-media interaction.  Therefore it is critical that not only the effects of agents be empirically tested, but also the effects of combined or interactive systems of agents be scientifically studied within the larger context of both a multi-media and a multiple media environment.   Studies of effects and ethical issues spawned by new media such as by Cooper  (1998) exist but the testing of how such new media will interact within various environments is a necessity of the near future. Moreover, in an age of globalization, Westernization, and the digital divide,  the further development of the “www”-world and “e”-environment in sophisticated and hidden interactive ways raises questions about further Western technological dominance and about the future homogenization of culture into a single accent.

Anticipating Socio-Cultural Effects and Ethical Issues

Many positive effects of agents are inherently obvious and are the very reason that such new technologies are being implemented wherever practical. These positive effects include 1) saving time, 2) saving money after initial purchasing costs, 3) saving labor, 4) making task accomplishment comprehensive, 5) automating mindless tasks, 6) increasing global connectivity and 7) enhancing productivity. 

However, it should be noted that each culture is different and some cultures may not wish to increase global connectivity nor to speed up production nor disrupt ancient traditions.  Indeed introducing agents of speed-up which bring other cultures and advertising more readily into a remote or traditional culture often introduces the ethical problems associated with imposing external products, rhythms, and lifestyles which threaten or divide local populations.  Moreover, the implementation of new technologies, like new drugs, creates hidden or unknown effects, some of which later prove negative, such as the radiation danger of computer monitors to pregnant women, the birth defects stemming from thalidomide, and the increased aggression in children who are heavy users of Western television.

Although no crystal ball is available to observe the full range of agent effects in each country, there are specific methods for anticipating possible effects that are more scientific than others. To some degree new technologies may be tested before, during, or shortly after their implementation, as was once the case in the United States by the Office of Technology Assessment.  Associations such as Future and Emerging Technologies, which exist in Europe, may also be established for professionals and academics to compare notes ( ). Professional organizations such as FIPA also allow professionals to establish over-arching standards and ethical principles among those developing agents. Additionally, interest groups within academic and professional organizations such as the Pacific Telecommunication Association in the Pacific and the National Communication Association and International Communication Association further east could be created to discuss the possible social effects of agents and of other new communication technologies.

Among scholars there are two specific approaches to anticipating possible socio-cultural effects which are grouped under the coined term “presearch”, or “preventive research”.  The first of these approaches might be called “next-of-kin” studies, that is, previous tests upon similar technologies and tests of similar phenomena in other disciplines such as those already reported in toxicology and biochemistry. 

The second approach might be called  “attribute-based” predictive research, which means that if one may properly determine the essential attributes or functional specifics of a new technology, then one might predict possible socio-cultural effects by isolating and sometimes exaggerating that attribute. For example, one attribute of agent technology is that of autonomy. Autonomy declares that an agent may accomplish a task repetitively without further instruction.  Such autonomy can potentially lead to a Sorcerer’s Apprentice effect in which a process, once turned on, is not successfully turned off. For example, if the boss in the office sends out electronic birthday cards to all employees, after the boss dies the cards will continue to be sent via e-mail, which would signal to everyone that an agent rather than the boss had sent the cards.  If an agent autonomously broadcasts warning messages to enemy ships which invade local waters, how will the agent know when countries have shifted their allegiance, have permission to trade goods, or are in negotiation with the host country.  Hence one may predict that vendors, manufacturers, governments, and policy experts will need to anticipate socio-cultural problems based upon the attribute of autonomy and will need to constantly reprogram, test, and monitor agents.

According to the combined research of FIPA scientists and this research, other attributes of intelligent agents include 1) social ability, 2) reactivity, 3) pro-activeness,  4) adaptability,  5) mobility,  6)  temporal continuity, 7) transparency,  8) auto-replication,  9)  self-maintenance, 10) auto-destruction, 11) sustainability, 12) multi-cultural presence and 13) camouflage/impersonation (  Unless there is sufficient research, the combination of these attributes mingled with the choreography of intelligent agents could lead to predicaments which have not only unforeseen effects, but also attendant ethical and legal issues which could be difficult to unravel.  Consider these hypothetical cases below which are composites and projections of problems already encountered with agents or “next-of-kin” technologies:

1) the Stan McGregor case in which an individual says “I am lonely” to the computer provided in his hotel room.. Immediately choreographed agents simultaneously provide Stan with lists of contact information about religious leaders, psychologists, local arts and amusements, best friends, family, escort services, and others who may attempt to soothe, counsel, postpone, or eliminate his loneliness  Who is accountable if a pop psychologist or cult leader, listed on-line in a manner so as not to be distinguished from all the reputable counselors, gives bad advice leading to suicide or if the escort service leads to death by AIDS or to criminal activity?  At this time agents cannot distinguish “ethical” and “accountable” from “unethical” and “irresponsible”  (See Cooper et al, 1998, for debate about agent liability).

2) a listener writes an evangelist  who uses choreographed agents to filter and answer audience mail with several different form letter replies selected by topic. Since agents cannot distinguish “tone” and hidden messages in the letters, but only respond to key words and phrases, the already disturbed listener, seeking advice from a trusted authority, receives the wrong generic letter, based upon using figures of speech, interpreted literally by the agent, and has a nervous breakdown or worse.  The author writes “If I get one more form letter back from an evangelist about turning my money over to God and letting Him handle my financial problems, I’ll commit suicide”.   The evangelist’s agent “reads” the key words “money” and “financial problems” in the letter, and routinely sends him the financial form letter. 

3)an agent conducting research on Lady Diana Spencer to help an author write a book gathers confidential information from data bases about another Diana Spencer living in Australia because it cannot distinguish between the two people or respect confidential boundaries. The author publishes the latter materials about Diana Spencer’s health conditions without realizing the mistake and lawsuits regarding invasion of privacy, defamation, and violation of confidentiality are pursued.

4) choreographed agents, trained to shoot missiles at hostile targets when a host country is attacked,   fire instead at their own cities and people because the combination of agents creates an unanticipated (Hall) effect or because enemy hackers cleverly  change the target sites.    

The attributes of agents make these and many other unexpected scenarios possible unless sufficient preventive research (presearch) is conducted.  Moreover agents created in one culture may have additional unknown effects when introduced to other cultures. Hence the complexity is thrice increased by the multiplicity of agents, of interactions, and of cultures.  

Consequently, the implementation of agents, especially when combined as multi-agent systems, and in countries where the Internet itself is a recent immigrant, needs to be closely studied.   Finally, a series of recommendations are presented based upon the conclusions drawn from available empirical research, literature, technology studies, next-of-kin research and from attribute-based analysis.

Conclusions and Recommendations

In most parts of the world most people are unaware of what intelligent agents actually are, even if some populations are using an agent prototype called the Internet search engine. It is important that people be made aware of the nature and functions of agents so that they will know, for example, if a response received from a celebrity or government official came from a real person or was generated by a machine. Wherever agents are unknown, education about the nature and use of intelligent agents is important in and beyond the classroom.

Moreover, it is vital to conduct empirical studies to test the effects of linked agents in specific countries.  There are hidden and long-term effects of each technology that are often only discovered after the fact – once law suits and problems have occurred.  Scientists conducting presearch can take steps toward minimizing possibly damaging and as yet unknown effects.  Councils of scientists, business representatives, parents, community leaders, government liaisons, and others, depending upon the culture, may wish to be assembled to consider new technologies prior to their implementation to make recommendations to engineers, manufacturers, and policy groups prior to the widespread use of new technologies.

Many positive and neutral effects may be anticipated from intelligent agents, primarily in the areas of eliminating repetitive tasks and in refining and speeding up the processes by which such tasks are accomplished. Thus, differing cultures may value or devalue agents to the degree to which each values authenticity, speed-up, physical and mental labor, surrogate or substitute automation, natural rhythms, cultural and individual privacy, and technical innovation.   Each culture will have differing sensitivities to the degree that a technology might contribute to the preservation or erosion of traditional culture and language.  For example, one might imagine the differing response to and ethical concerns about the ringing of an agent-activated portable cellular phone/e-mail/pocket  calculator in a cemetery burial in Italy, a mosque worship service in Iran,  a tea ceremony in Japan,  and an academic seminar in England.

There are a growing number of resources available about intelligent agents. Perhaps the best introduction to a wide variety of scholarly and technical sources, many of which are listed in the endnotes references of this article, are listed at the UMBC comprehensive webliography ( It is important that such sources and research grow in quantity, quality, and diversity.

It is crucial that available findings about the effects of solo and choreographed agents be quickly published and posted so that an unknown quantity may be better tested, adapted, and understood by the information rich and poor alike. Ideally, choreographed agents may perform numerous positive and important functions.  However, potential negative and unknown effects cannot be ignored and must be carefully investigated through widespread and multi-cultural empirical analysis.  A balanced and thorough inspection is essential.


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