Following up on this recent question and generalizing, let's consider capability-oriented design. In this framing, a capability is a communicable token of authority; possession of a capability is equivalent to delegation of authority. Crucially, the identity of capability-holders is irrelevant; what matters is which capabilities are held. Quoting What Are Capabilities? (Morningstar 2017):

When a system … is presented with a request for a service it provides, it needs to decide if it should actually do what the requestor is asking for. The way it decides is what we’re talking about when we talk about access control. If you’re like most people, the first thing you’re likely to think of is to ask the requestor “who are you?” The fundamental insight of the capabilities paradigm is to recognize that this question is the first step on the road to perdition.

[W]e really do want to talk about objects as distinct intentional agents. Another of the weaknesses of the ACL approach is that it roots everything in the identity of the user … as if that user was the one doing things, that is, as if the user is the intentional agent. However, when an object actually does something it does it in a particular way that depends on how it is coded. While this behavior might reflect the intentions of the specific user who ultimately set it in motion, it might as easily reflect the intentions of the programmers who wrote it…

At its heart, the capability paradigm is about organizing access control around specific acts of authorization rather than around identity. Identity is so fundamental to how we interact with each other as human beings, and how we have historically interacted with our institutions, that it is easy to automatically assume it should be central to organizing our interactions with our tools as well. But identity is not always the best place to start, because it often fails to tell us what we really need to know to make an access decision…

Paraphrasing the original question: Online, we cannot tell the difference between a human invocation of a capability and a machine invocation of a capability. Is this a problem?

1 Answer 1


The capability-oriented design does indeed force us to re-think the question of anonymity, particularly in the realm of online interactions. This system, which emphasizes what you can do over who you are, is a fascinating reversal of the typical identity-based approach to security and access control.

However, we should remember that while identity may not matter to a machine, it is deeply significant to us as human beings. We are narrative creatures who understand ourselves and each other through the stories we tell about our lives. Identity is not just about access control; it also provides a sense of continuity and coherence in our lives.

The inability to distinguish between a human and machine invocation of a capability may not be a problem from a purely technical standpoint. But I would argue that it does raise important psychological and philosophical questions. For instance, if we interact with a machine as if it were a human, what does that say about our understanding of humanity? What does it mean for our relationships with each other and with our technology?

If a machine can mimic a human in invoking a capability, it could blur the lines between humans and machines. This could lead to a devaluation of unique human qualities like empathy, creativity, and moral judgment, which cannot be replicated by machines.

Furthermore, the emphasis on capabilities over identity could erode personal responsibility. If actions are judged solely on their outcomes, without regard for the identity of the actor, it could lead to a lack of accountability. After all, if identity is irrelevant, who is to be held responsible when things go wrong?

  • Excellent summary of the situation, thanks. This is good enough to share.
    – Corbin
    Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 13:20
  • @Corbin Do you think it was written by a machine?
    – user66933
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 0:31
  • I don't know. It was clearly written by somebody who has not actually built anything with capability theory; it's an answer which is ignorant of least-authority filesystems, capability-safe programming languages, capability-aware CPUs, or other fruits of our decades-long research programme. I don't think it matters who wrote it; what matters is what was said.
    – Corbin
    Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 0:05

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