arXiv:nlin/0404004v2 [nlin.AO] 30 Apr 2004
Protocol Requirements for
Towards an Ambient
Carlos Gershenson and Francis Heylighen
Centrum Leo Apostel, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
We discuss which properties common-use artifacts should have to collaborate with-
out human intervention. We conceive how devices, such as mobile phones, PDAs, and
home appliances, could be seamlessly integrated to provide an “ambient intelligence”
that responds to the user’s desires without requiring explicit programming or com-
mands. While the hardware and software technology to build such systems already
exists, as yet there is no standard protocol that can learn new meanings. We propose
the first steps in the development of such a protocol, which would need to be adaptive,
extensible, and open to the community, while promoting self-organization. We argue
that devices, interacting through “game-like” moves, can learn to agree about how to
communicate, with whom to cooperate, and how to delegate and coordinate specialized
tasks. Thus, they may evolve a distributed cognition or collective intelligence capable
of tackling complex tasks.
The diversity and capabilities of devices we use at home, school, or work, are
increasing constantly. The functions of different devices often overlap (e.g. a
portable computer and a mobile phone have agendas; a radio-clock and a PDA
2Protocol Requirements for Self-organizing Artifacts
have alarms), but most often we cannot combine their capabilities automatically
(e.g. the PDA cannot tell the radio to set its alarm for the early Tuesday’s
appointment), and users need to repeat the same tasks for different devices
(e.g. setting up an address book in different devices). Moreover, using the
functionality of some devices in combination with others would be convenient
(e.g. if my computer has an Intelligent User Interface, I would like to use it to ask
for coffee, without the need of having speech recognition in the coffee machine:
The computer should be able to ask the coffee machine for cappuccino).
Could we build devices so that they would automatically coordinate, com-
bining their functions, and possibly producing new, “emergent” ones? The tech-
nology to achieve this is already at hand. What we lack is a proper design
methodology, able to tackle the problems posed by autonomously communi-
cating artifacts in a constantly changing technosphere. In this paper we try
to delineate the requirements that such a design paradigm should fulfill. The
scenario we imagine considers a nearby future where technological artifacts self-
organize, in the sense that they are able to communicate and perform desirable
tasks with minimal human intervention.
This vision is closely related to the concept of “Ambient Intelligence”
(AmI), which envisages a future where people are surrounded by “smart”
and “sensitive” devices. AmI would be the result of the integration of three
technologies: Ubiquitous Computing , Ubiquitous Communication, and In-
telligent User Friendly Interfaces. The first one conceives of a seamless inte-
gration of computation processes taking place in the variety of artifacts that
surround us, being part of “The Grid”, the network that would allow anyone
anywhere to access the required computing power. The present paper focuses on
the aspect of Ubiquitous Communication that attempts to obtain seamless in-
formation exchange between devices. Intelligent User Friendly Interfaces should
enable an intuitive, effortless interaction between users and devices.
With current approaches, this scenario would be possible, since we have the
technology, but extremely expensive, since people would need to buy from the
same producer all of their devices. We can see a similar casein the area of Home
Automation: the technology is available on the market, but it is not possible to
buy today ventilation for a house, and in five years integrate the system with
a new fire detector. An engineer needs to integrate them manually, so that the
ventilation system could be activated if smoke is detected, simply because the
ventilation system was not designed to receive such signals. These limitations
increase the price and restrict the market of devices for Home Automation,
since complete solutions should be bought in order to have full coordination and
functionality between devices. People would be more willing to invest in Home
Automation if they could have the possibility of acquiring it progressively.
1.2 Requirements for self-organizing artifacts
We see self-organization as a paradigm for designing, controlling, and under-
standing systems . A key characteristic of a self-organizing system is that
Protocol Requirements for Self-organizing Artifacts3
structure and function of the system “emerge” from interactions between the
elements. The purpose should not be explicitly designed, programmed, or con-
trolled. The components should interact freely with each other and with the
environment, mutually adapting to reach an intrinsically “preferable” or “fit”
configuration (attractor), thus defining an emergent purpose for the system .
By “self-organizing artifacts” we mean a setup where different devices, with
different fabrications and functionalities, and moving in and out of different
configurations, can communicate and integrate information to produce novel
functionalities that the devices by themselves could not achieve.
A first requirement for such communication is cross-platform compatibility.
This is already achieved for programming with Java, and for documents with
XML. Another requirement is wireless communication, which is offered by tech-
nologies such as IR, Bluetooth and WiFi. Near Field Communications (NFC) is
a newly envisioned standard, proposed by a consortium headed by Sony, Nokia,
and Philips, which would allow information to be transmitted between devices
that come in close spatial proximity (“touching”).
Even with such a standard, the problem remains that the user generally
would need to specifically request such communication between devices (e.g.
“transfer this file from here to there”). Ideally, the devices would know what we
want them to do and how to do it. User Interfaces already help us to tell them
our wishes. Still, one device cannot tell another device what we want, especially
if they are produced by different manufacturers. This is a general problem of
communication between artifacts: they can recognize standard messages, but
they do not “know” what the messages mean. To avoid endless debates, we can
say that the meaning of a message is determined by its use : if a device
has received a message, and does “the right thing” (for the user), then it has
“understood” the meaning of the message. Thus, the user’s satisfaction is the
ultimate measure of the effectiveness of the artifacts’ performance.
Another issue is how to deal with changes in technology. We do not want to
reconfigure every artifact each time a new device arrives. Moreover, we want the
old devices to be able at least to cope with the functionality of new ones. New
devices should configure themselves as automatically as possible. Older ones
may require user intervention at first (as they cannot know beforehand which
functions will be required), but they should be able to cope with new technology
being added to the network. The overall system must be adaptive, extensible,
An adaptive system can cope with unexpected changes in its environment,
as exemplified by the constantly changing technology. Having flexibility built
into our systems is desirable: they should at least be able to tolerate events
they were not designed for without breaking down, but preferably try to find
adapted solutions, or at least ask assistance from the user. For example, home
appliances have a limited set of functions. To have them self-organize (e.g. the
alarm clock coordinating with the microwave oven, and the oven with the kettle),
their functions could be easily programmed to respond to unknown messages. If
a new device arrives, and an old one does not know what to do when it receives
4Protocol Requirements for Self-organizing Artifacts
a message, it can check what the user wants, thus learning how to respond
appropriately. The possibility to add more devices to an existing configuration
may be called extensibility.
Suppose that a company develops adaptable and extensible devices that in-
teract seamlessly with each other. This would still leave the problem that cus-
tomers cannot add devices from other companies, as these would follow their own
standards, thus creating compatibility problems. We believe that the solution
is to have open technologies, in the spirit of GNU. Open means that everyone
has free access to their specifications. The advantage is that they can develop
much faster, meeting the requirements of more people, because they are devel-
oped by a global community that can try out many more approaches than any
single company. Still, a company can benefit in promoting an open technology,
since this would provide them with free publicity while everyone is using their
protocol (e.g. Sun’s Java).
Open technology can respond to the needs of the largest variety of people,
while allowing problems and errors to be detected and corrected more easily.
Another advantage is that it allows people to get updates developed by other
users for free. For example, if I program my “old” toaster to integrate with
my new mobile phone, it costs me nothing to make the program available on
the Internet to anyone else who might need it. Thus, updates, extensions, and
specialized applications can flow much more quickly from a global community
than from a private company. Still, companies would benefit from this approach,
since people would be more willing to buy new devices as integrating them into
their existing, open setup, will be easier.
We can divide the problem of self-organizing integration into three subproblems:
1) devices should learn to communicate with each other, even when they have no
a priori shared understanding of what a particular message or function means;
2) devices should learn which other devices they can trust to cooperate, avoiding
the others; 3) devices should develop an efficient division of labour and workflow,
so that each performs that part of the overall task that it is most competent at,
at the right moment, while delegating the remaining functions to the others.
These issues are all part of collective intelligence  or distributed cognition
: a complex problem cannot be tackled by a single device or agent, but must
be solved by them working together, in an efficiently coordinated, yet spatially
distributed, system, where information flows from the one agent to the other ac-
cording to well-adapted rules. Until now, distributed cognition has been studied
mostly in existing systems, such as human organizations  or animal “swarms”
, that have evolved over many generations to develop workable rules. Hav-
ing the rules self-organize from scratch is a much bigger challenge, which has
been addressed to some degree in distributed AI and multi-agent simulations
of social systems. Inspired by these first explorations, we will propose a num-
ber of general mechanisms that could probably tackle the three subproblems.
Protocol Requirements for Self-organizing Artifacts5
However, extensive simulation will clearly be needed to test and elaborate these
1.4 Learning to communicate
To communicate effectively, different agents must use the same concepts or cat-
egories. To achieve effective coordination, agents must reach a shared under-
standing of a concept, so that they agree about which situations and actions
belong to that category, and which do not. A group of agents negotiating such
a consensus may self-organize, so that a globally shared categorisation emerges
out of local interactions between agents.
Such self-organization has been shown in different simulations of the evo-
lution of language [16, 12]. Here, interacting software agents or robots try to
develop a shared lexicon, so that they interpret the same expressions, symbols,
or “words” in the same way. In these simulations agents interact according to a
protocol called a “language game”. There are many varieties of such games, but
the general principle is that two agents “meet” in virtual space, which means
that through their sensors they experience the same situation at the same time.
Then they try to achieve a consensus on how to designate one of the components
of their shared experience by each in turn performing elementary moves.
In a typical move, the first agent produces an “utterance” referring to a
phenomenon that belongs to one of its inbuilt or previously learned categories,
and the second one finds the best fitting category for that phenomenon in its
knowledge base. The second agent then indicates a phenomenon belonging to
that same category. If this phenomenon also belongs to the same category for
the first agent, both categorisations are reinforced, otherwise they are reduced
in strength. In the next move of the “game”, another phenomenon is indicated,
which may or may not belong to the category. The corresponding categorisation
is strengthened or weakened depending on the degree of agreement. After a
number of moves the game is stopped, each agent maintaining the mutually
adjusted categories. Each agent in turn is coupled to another agent in the
system, to play a new game using different phenomena. After some games a
stable and coherent system of categories shared by all agents is likely to emerge
through self-organization. A good example of such a set-up can be found in
Belpaeme’s  simulation of the origin of shared colour categories.
If for some reason devices are not able to communicate, they should be able
to notify the user, and ask for the correct interpretation of the message. This is
easy, since devices have a limited functionality. It would be possible to “teach”
a device what to do if it receives a particular message, and the device should
“learn” the meaning of the message.
Research has been done in multi-agent systems where agents negotiate their
protocols [14, 4], which could be extended for a setup of self-organizing artifacts.
However, agent communication standards, such as FIPA, still do not contemplate
adaptation to new meanings. Nevertheless, there is promising research going on
in this direction.
6Protocol Requirements for Self-organizing Artifacts
1.5 Learning to cooperate
Integrated devices should not only communicate, but cooperate. Cooperation
may seem self-evident in preprogramed systems, where the components are ex-
plicitly designed to respond appropriately to requests made by other compo-
nents. However, this is no longer the case in open, extensible configurations.
For example, a person at the airport would like her PDA to collaborate with
the devices present at the airport, so that it can automatically warn her when and
where she has to go, or tell her which facilities are available in the airport lounge.
Yet not all devices at the airport may be ready to help a PDA, e.g. because
of security restrictions, because they are proprietary and reserved for paying
customers, or because they simply do not care about personal wishes. Moreover,
devices may be ready to share certain types of services but not others, e.g. telling
users when the flight is scheduled to depart, but not how many passengers will
be on it. As another example, devices may not only be uncooperative, but
malevolent, in the sense that they try to manipulate other devices in a way
detrimental to their user. Such devices may be programmed, e.g. by fraudsters,
spies, or terrorists.
There exists an extensive literature on the evolution of cooperation between
initially “selfish” agents, inspired by the seminal work of Axelrod  that com-
pared different strategies for playing a repeated “Prisoners’ Dilemma” game.
However, this game does not seem directly applicable to information exchanging
devices. Moreover, the chief result, while sensible, may seem trivial: the most
effective strategy to achieve robust cooperation appears to be tit for tat, i.e.
cooperate with agents that reciprocate the cooperation, stop cooperating with
those that do not. More recent, tag-based models (e.g. [15, 7] start from a
simpler situation than the Prisoners’ Dilemma, in which one agent “donates” a
service to another one, at a small cost to the donor but a larger benefit to the
recipient. The main idea is that agents are identified by “tags”, and that they
cooperate with those agents whose tags are similar to their own. The rationale
is that agents with the same type of tag belong to the same group, “family” or
“culture”, following the same rules, so that they can be trusted to reciprocate.
For artifacts, a tag may include such markers as brand, model, and proto-
cols understood. This would show that a device is capable and willing to lend
particular services to another one, thus obviating the need for a repeated, “tit-
for-tat-like” interaction probing the willingness to reciprocate. Yet extensible
environments should allow the addition of very dissimilar devices, made by dif-
ferent companies using different standards and functionalities. Therefore, we
propose a different approach, combining some advantages of tags and tit-for-tat
Consider a game with the following moves: an agent makes a request and
the other agent either cooperates (donates) or “defects”. Agents learn from
these interactions in the following manner: if the result is positive (cooperation),
the agent will get more “trust” in the other agent’s cooperativeness. Thus, the
probability increases that it will make further requests to that agent in the future,
Protocol Requirements for Self-organizing Artifacts7
or react positively to the other’s requests. Vice-versa, a negative result will lead
to more “distrust” and a reduced probability to make or accept requests to/from
this agent. Still, to recognise this agent, it has to take its clue from the tag,
which is usually not unique to that agent. This means that a later interaction
may be initiated with a different agent that carries a similar tag, but that is
not necessarily willing to cooperate to the same extent. We may assume that
if the first few interactions with agents having similar tags all generate positive
(negative) results, the agent will develop a default propensity to react positively
(negatively) always to agents characterised by that type of markers.
We expect that in this way the initially undirected interactions will produce
a differentiation in clusters of similarly marked agents that cooperate with each
other (e.g. all devices belonging to the same user or organization), but that are
reluctant to interact with members of other groups (e.g. devices belonging to
rival organizations). The tags and their association thus develop the function of
a mediator  that increases the probability of positive interactions by creating
a division between “friends” (in-group) and “strangers” or “foes” (out-group).
Note, however, that there is no assumption that an agent only cooperates with
agents bearing the same tag as itself: by default it cooperates with anyone
having a tag similar to the one of agents that were cooperative in the past. This
means that there can be groups with which everyone cooperates (e.g. “public”
devices), but also that specific types of “symbiosis” can develop in which one
group systematically seeks out members of a different group to cooperate with
because of their complementary capabilities. This brings us to the more complex
issue of the division of labour.
1.6 Learning to coordinate
After having ascertained that our devices can communicate and cooperate, we
still need to make sure that the functions they perform satisfy the user. This de-
sired functionality can be viewed as a complex of tasks that need to be executed.
The tasks are mutually dependent in the sense that a certain task (e.g. locating
a file) has to be accomplished before subsequent tasks (e.g. downloading and
playing the file) can be initiated. Each agent can either execute a task itself, or
delegate it to another agent. Initially, we may assume that all agents that have
a certain functionality built in (e.g. playing a sound file) are equally competent
at performing that type of task. However, in practice the satisfaction of the user
can vary. For example, a recording is likely to be played with a higher sound
quality by a music installation than by a PDA or television. By default, devices
can use certain preprogramed rules-of-thumb to decide who takes precedence
(e.g. newer or more specialized devices are preferred to older, less specialized
ones). Yet in an open environment there is no guarantee that such simple heuris-
tics will produce the best result. Again, we may tackle this problem through
individual learning coupled with collective self-organization.
Assume that the user regularly expresses his/her overall satisfaction with
the ambient intelligence environment (e.g.explicitly by clicking on a scale
8Protocol Requirements for Self-organizing Artifacts
from one to ten, or implicitly by facial or physiological cues that express happi-
ness/unhappiness). This score can be used as a feedback signal to the network
of devices, allowing it to reinforce the more successful rules, while weakening
the less effective ones. We will assume that the agent who delegated a task will
increase its trust in the competence of the agent that performed that task, and
thus increase its probability to delegate a similar task to the same agent in the
future. Otherwise, it will reduce its trust. As demonstrated by the simulation
of Gaines , this assumption is sufficient to evolve a self-reinforcing division of
labour where tasks are delegated to the most “expert” agents.
However, when the tasks are mutually dependent, selecting the right special-
ist to carry out a task is not sufficient: First the preparatory tasks have to be
done by the right agents, in the right order. When the agents do not know a
priori what the right order is, they can randomly attempt to execute or dele-
gate a task, and, if this fails, pick out another task. Eventually they will find
a task they can execute, either because it requires no preparation, or because a
preparatory task has already been accomplished by another agent. Each com-
pleted task enables the accomplishment of a series of directly dependent tasks.
In this way the overall problem will eventually be solved. In each problem cycle,
agents will learn better when to take on which task by themselves, or when to
delegate it to a specific other agent.
We expect that this learned organisation will eventually stabilise into a sys-
tem of efficient, coordinated actions, adapted to the task structure. When new
devices are added to the system, system and device should mutually adapt, pro-
ducing a new organization. While no single agent knows how to tackle the entire
problem, the knowledge has been “distributed” across the system. The “tags”
that identify agents, and the learned associations between a tag and the com-
petence for a particular task, play the role of a mediator , delegating tasks
to the right agents and coordinating their interactions so that the problem is
tackled as efficiently as possible.
We cannot keep on adding functions to personal computers.
text editors, game consoles, televisions, home cinemas, radios, agendas, music
players, gateway to the Internet, etc. Such general devices will never produce
the same quality as specialized appliances. Our PCs are like ducks: they can
swim, but not as well as fish; fly, but not as well as hawks; and walk, but not
as well as cats. Rather than integrate so many functions in a single device, it
seems preferable to entrust them to an ever expanding network of specialized
devices that is kept coordinated through an ongoing process of self-organization.
We have described a number of general requirements and approaches that may
enable our artifacts to learn the most effective way of cooperation.
In our overall scenario, we have assumed that standard functions and in-
teraction rules are preprogrammed by a global community to handle the most
common, default situations, but that the system is moreover ready to extend
They serve as
Protocol Requirements for Self-organizing Artifacts9
its own capabilities, adapting to newly encountered tasks, situations, or de-
vices. This ability to adapt should be already present in the interaction rules.
The adaptation may be achieved through the self-organization of the system
of agents, using recurrent, “game-like” interactions, in which the agents learn
what messages mean and who they can trust to perform which task. Most of
this can happen outside of, or in parallel with, their normal “work”, using idle
processing power to explore many different communication and collaboration
configurations. Thus, we can imagine that our future, intelligent devices, like
young animals or children, will learn to become more skilful by exploring, “play-
ing games” with each other, and practising uncommon routines, so as to be
prepared whenever the need for this kind of coordinated action appears.
We thank Peter McBurney for useful comments. C. G. was supported in part
by CONACyT of Mexico.
 Axelrod, R. M., The Evolution of Cooperation, Basic Books New York
 Belpaeme, Tony, “Reaching coherent colour categories through communi-
cation”, Proc. 13th Belgium-Netherlands Conference on AI (B. K. et Al.
ed.), (2001), 41–48.
 Bonabeau, E, M. Dorigo, and G. Theraulaz,
Oxford University Press (1998).
 Dastani, Mehdi, Joris Hulstijn, and Leendert Van der Torre, “Ne-
gotiation protocols and dialogue games”, International Conference on Au-
tonomous Agents, ACM (2001), 180 – 181.
 Gaines, B. R., “The collective stance in modeling expertise in individuals
and organizations”, Int. J. Expert Systems 71 (1994), 22–51.
 Gershenson, Carlos, and Francis Heylighen, “When can we call a sys-
tem self-organizing?”, Advances in Artificial Life, 7th European Conference,
ECAL 2003 LNAI 2801 (W. Banzhaf, T. Christaller, P. Dittrich,
J. T. Kim, and J. Ziegler eds.), Springer-Verlag (2003), 606–614.
 Hales, D., and B. Edmonds, “Evolving social rationality for MAS using
”tags””, Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Autonomous
Agents and Multiagent Systems (J. S. R. et Al. ed.), ACM Press (2003),
10Protocol Requirements for Self-organizing Artifacts Download full-text
 Heylighen, Francis, “Collective intelligence and its implementation on the
web”, Computational and Mathematical Theory of Organizations 5 (1999),
 Heylighen, Francis, “Mediator evolution”, Tech. Rep. no., Principia
 Heylighen, Francis, and Carlos Gershenson,
organization in computing”, IEEE Intelligent Systems (July/August 2003),
“The meaning of self-
 Hutchins, E, Cognition in the Wild, MIT Press (1995).
 Hutchins, E., and B. Hazelhurst, “How to invent a lexicon: The devel-
opment of shared symbols in interaction”, Artificial Societies (N. Gilbert
and R. Conte eds.), UCL Press (1995).
 ISTAG, “Scenarios for ambient intelligence in 2010”,
Tech. Rep. no.,
 Reed, C., T. J. Norman, and N. R. Jennings, “Negotiating the seman-
tics of agent communication languages”, Computational Intelligence 18, 2
 Riolo, R., M. D. Cohen, and R. M. Axelrod, “Evolution of cooperation
without reciprocity”, Nature 414 (2001), 441–443.
 Steels, Luc,
co-evolution, self-organisation and level formation”,
Evolution of Language (J. R. Hurford, M. Studdert-Kennedy, and
C. Knight eds.), Cambridge University Press (1998), 384–404.
“Synthesising the origins of language and meaning using
Approaches to the
 Weiser, M., “Some computer science problems in ubiquitous computing”,
Communications of the ACM (July 1997).
 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations 3rd ed., Prentice