Programming with Agents:
New metaphors for thinking about computation

Michael David Travers

Submitted to the Program in Media Arts and Sciences,
School of Architecture and Planning on May 3, 1996
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Computer programming environments for learning should make it easy to create worlds of responsive and autonomous objects, such as video games or simulations of animal behavior. But building such worlds remains difficult, partly because the models and metaphors underlying traditional programming languages are not particularly suited to the task. This dissertation investigates new metaphors, environments, and languages that make possible new ways to create programs -- and, more broadly, new ways to think about programs. In particular, it introduces the idea of programming with "agents" as a means to help people create worlds involving responsive, interacting objects. In this context, an agent is a simple mechanism intended to be understood through anthropomorphic metaphors and endowed with certain lifelike properties such as autonomy, purposefulness, and emotional state. Complex behavior is achieved by combining simple agents into more complex structures. While the agent metaphor enables new ways of thinking about programming, it also raises new problems such as inter-agent conflict and new tasks such as making the activity of a complex society of agents understandable to the user. To explore these ideas, a visual programming environment called LiveWorld has been developed that supports the creation of agent-based models, along with a series of agent languages that operate in this world.
Thesis Supervisors:

Marvin Minsky
Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science
Toshiba Professor of Media Arts & Sciences

Mitchel Resnick
Assistant Professor of Media Arts & Sciences
Fukutake Career Development Professor of Research in Education

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Michael Travers / MIT Media Lab /