Autonomy & Agency

Computers have both autonomy and agency. What’s the difference between the two?

Autonomy is the ability to do something without needing to be constantly told. Computers excel at this. Tell a computer to multiple a number by 2 until it runs out of memory it will happily (figure of speech) do it until the program runs out of memory. In fact, autonomy is the reason computers are so popular and are replacing so many jobs around the world. Once you program a computer to do a simple repetitive task it’ll keep doing it until it is stopped.

Agency, although possible to implement in computers, is much more complex than autonomy. Agency is basically the ability to choose, decide and control. Agency is implemented in the form of AIs. AIs are intelligent because they can make decisions based on the situation and other factors.

If we were to use an analogy, a thermometer has autonomy and a thermostat has agency. A thermometer does nothing but respond to temperature, while a thermostat can be used to control and keep the temperature at a constant value by switching on and off the air conditioner or the heater when needed. Of course, no program can fit perfectly in either category. They are rather the opposite ends of a spectrum. Another example would be a device that is used to fill a tank with water. One program in the device makes the device let water flow into the tank for 10 seconds. Another program in the device makes water flow into the tank until it reaches a certain level. They’re both extremely simple programs to write but the second one actually has more agency than the first because it decides how much to water to let through and when to stop.

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