Your fridge will still be stupid and cold, but maybe my milk will tell it jokes

Draft of 2004.06.15

May include: philosophyfuturismAI&c.

Business Week has run an enthusiastic article touting the coming age of Digital Convergence. In a slashdot comment on the thing, the old “your fridge will know when you need to order milk” trope is trotted out.

That’s a short-sighted idea that I’ve slapped around in public before, but I just realized that it was back before Notional Slurry when I was giving workshops and seminars and tutorials at OOPSLA and ASA/MA and other conferences. So I thought, since I was reminded, I’d pass along what I tell my audiences and customers.

If you don’t know it, the “fridge orders your milk” trope most often crops up in conversations regarding autonomous software agents and agent-based design. The story goes something like, “In the future, every electronic device (a) will be networked, and (b) will be controlled by an autonomous agent-based software system that communicates through the ubiquitous network to other agents. So your agent-based fridge will, for example, read the barcode on the milk when it gets put in, and keep track of when it is about to expire, and will either remind you to buy more or will order it for you.”

Strangely enough, my gripe is not that I don’t believe it. Indeed, I expect it will be literally true in the near future—if only because every short-sighted gurulette has heard it and passed it on to Marketing a dozen times at over the last decade. If you can’t buy a modem equipped or Bluetooth milk-aware fridge from Hammacher-Schlemmer in the next couple of years, I’ll make you eat your hat.

But, if I may say so, it’s the most irredeemably boring vision of the future I’ve heard for several decades. My fridge will order my milk? Thousands of man-hours of research and thought by diligent creative grad students and technicians and a few professors leads to the disintermediation of the fucking shopping list industry? What happens to all the innumerable real advances in multi-agent systems, smart materials, affective computing, and ubiquitous computing? We forget them, like the people in the Star Trek universe all forgot how to use an automatic pilot or a computer targeting system?

You want to know when agent-based design is here? Not when my fridge reads barcodes. No, it goes like this:

My milk will sense it’s not feeling well, and will chat with the fridge and maybe ask it have a look-see with its extra senses and bring its extra smarts to bear, or ask some friends. Together they concoct a plan to remedy the situation. Maybe they do some chemistry. Maybe they develop some antibodies. Maybe they try to talk the bacteria out of their harshness, convert to a nice communal yoghurt and seek a permanent existence as a collective, nurtured and supported by the sheltering fridge. The least they can do is see it off to a noble end, with a little dignity, and make arrangements to take care of its progeny.

Agent-based engineering and design won’t really be here, except as a wannabe immature field or a suite of design patterns, until something like that comes to pass. And if you really attend to how the research is going and how we can make things happen already, this one is just as inevitable as the fridge scenario.

Screw the disintermediation of traditional advertising, the introduction of disruptive technologies to electronics consumers, and the enabling of networked hardware for ubiquitous seamless e-commerce.

No, I’ll be satisfied with nothing less than the disintermediation of design itself, and the empowerment of stuff.