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# Wiki Contributions

edbs2313

The Active Inference literature on this is very strong, and I think the best and most overlooked part of what it offers. In Active Inference, an agent is first and foremost a persistent boundary. Specifically, it is a persistent Markov Blanket, a idea due to Judea Pearl. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Markov_blanket The short version: a Markov blanket is a statement that a certain amount of state (the interior of the agent) is conditionally independent of a certain other amount of state (the rest of the universe), and that specifically its independence is conditioned on the blanket state that sits in between the exterior and the interior.

You can show that, in order for an agent to persist, it needs to have the capacity to observe and learn about its environment. The math is a more complex than I want to get into here, but the intuition pump is easy:

• A cubic meter of rock has a persistent boundary over time, but no interior, states in an informational sense and therefore are not agents. To see they have no interior, note that anything that puts information into the surface layer of the rock transmits that same information into the very interior (vibrations, motion, etc).
• A cubic meter of air has lots of interior states, but no persistent boundary over time, and is therefore not an agent. To see that it has no boundary, just note that it immediately dissipates into the environment from the starting conditions.
• A living organism has both a persistent boundary over time, and also interior states that are conditionally independent of the outside world, and is therefore an agent.
• Computer programs are an interesting middle ground case. They have a persistent informational boundary (usually the POSIX APIs or whatever), and an interior that is conditionally independent of the outside through those APIs. So they are agents in that sense. But they're not very good agents, because while their boundary is persistent it mostly persists because of a lot of work being done by other agents (humans) to protect them. So they tend to break a lot.

What's cool about this definition is that it gives you criteria for the baseline viability of an agent: can it maintain its own boundary over time, in the face of environmental disruption? Some agents are much better at this than others.

This leads to of course many more questions that are important -- many of the ones listed in this post are relevant. But it gives you an easy, and more importantly mathematical test, for agenthood. It is a question of dynamics in flows of mutual information between the interior and the exterior, which is conveniently quite easy to measure for a computer program.  And I think it is simply true: to the degree and in such contexts as such a thing persists without help in the face of environmental disruption, it is agent-like.

There is much more to say here about the implications -- specifically how this necessarily means that you have an entity which has pragmatic and epistemic goals, minimizes free energy (aka surprisal) and models a self-boundary, but I'll stop here because it's an important enough idea on its own to be worth sharing.