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Agents of ChangeCentralizing a corporation was once considered an efficient way to run an enterprise. Decisions and information processing occurred in an orderly, top-down, hierarchical manner. However, it is now clear that this type of system only works in a reasonably stable market. Globalization and changes in technology are causing today's market to be in a state of constant flux. Companies that cannot adapt fast enough to thrive in new markets will be left behind.
In response, many companies are now building agent-based systems. These systems employ agents that can distribute functionality across a vast computing network. Furthermore, agents can not only adapt to their environment but also evolve by learning from the environment. In short, they are the ultimate in distributed computing. Such an approach prepares enterprises for an increasingly complex marketplace and enables them to respond rapidly to change.
However, agents and agent-based technology are an evolution, not a revolution. They are being built from today's technology and will work together with today's technology. While agents, objects, relational databases, legacy systems, imbedded systems and so on each have their own niche, together they can orchestrate rich systems that none of these technologies could provide alone.
A Flock Is Not a Bird
Imagine sitting in the park on a nice summer day and a flock of birds sweeps the sky. One moment they are circling, another they dart to the left or drop to the ground. Each move is so beautiful that it appears choreographed. Furthermore, the movements of the flock seem smoother than those of any one bird in the flock. Yet, the flock has no high-level controller or even a lead bird. The phenomenon is a result of what is often called self-organization.  Each bird follows a simple set of rules that it uses to react to birds nearby. When Craig Reynolds of DreamWorks developed his simulation, each bird behaved according to the following basic rules:
- Maintain a minimum distance from other objects, including other birds.
- Be sociable (i.e., try to match velocities with other birds, if they are nearby, and move towards the perceived center of their group).
Orderly flocks emerge from simple rules such as these. No one bird has a sense of an overall flock. The "bird in front" is merely a position of a given bird. It just happens to be thereand will be replaced by others in a matter of minutes. "The flock is organized without an organizer, coordinated without a coordinator."
Flocks of birds are not the only things that work like this. Bee hives, ant colonies, freeway traffic, national and global economies, societies and immune systems are all examples of patterns that are determined by local component interaction instead of centralized authority. For IT applications this can include order processing, supply chain, shop floor control, inventory management, message routing and management of multiple databases. In other words, a decentralized approach should be considered where local components also have controlinstead of limiting your approach solely to the centrally organized one traditionally employed by IT. After all, if New York City can maintain a two-week supply of food with only locally made decisions, why can't a supply chain system perform in a similar manner. As the figure suggests, if we could develop IT systems using even the simplicity of an ant colony, we would have very robust and adaptable systems indeed.
 Resnick, Mitchell, Termites, Turtles, and Traffic Jams: Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997.
 Figure courtesy of Van Parunak (ERIM, Inc., email@example.com).
About the author
James Odell is a consultant, educator and author. His website is www.jamesodell.com.
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