UML Actors (aka Roles) are meant to provide a twofold description of interactions between systems and their environment: organization and business process on one hand, system and applications on the other hand.
That can only be achieved by maintaining a conceptual distinction between actual agents, able to physically interact with systems, and actors (aka roles), which are their symbolic avatars as perceived by applications.
As far as the purpose is to describe interactions, actors should be primary characterized by the nature of language (symbolic or not), and identification coupling (biological or managed):
- Symbolic communication, no biological identification (systems)
- Analog communication, no biological identification (active devices or equipments)
- Symbolic communication, biological identification (people)
- Analog communication, biological identification (live organisms)
While there has been some confusion between actors (or roles) and agents, a clear-cut distinction is now a necessity due to the centrality of privacy issues, whether it is from business or regulatory perspective.