Tuesday, February 05, 2008

What is autonomy?

ResearchBlogging.orgIn yesterdays post, I reviewed a paper which discussed the role of emotion in autonomy. The concept of autonomy itself was found to be quite fuzzy, with definitions being dependant on the field of research in which the term is used. In an attempt to elucidate the concept, the editorial of the special issue of BioSystems on autonomy (of which the previously reviewed paper was a part) explores some of the issues involved.

Starting from the broad definition of autonomy as being self-determination (or the ability to act independantly of outside influence), it can be seen that this description applies to many levels of a system (be it biological, or artificial). However, the role of external (environmental) influences cannot be discounted: the reactive nature of autonomous systems is an essential part of proceedings - to the extent that some theorists have argued that there is no distinction between the two - even in the theory of autopoiesis is this the case. So, even from a theoretical standpoint autonomy is not isolated from the environment, but emphasises the independence.

Eve here though is the term independence problematic. There are three aspects which are pointed out as being of importance to the present discussion: (1) the reactive extent of interactions with the environment, (2) the extent to which the control mechanisms are self-generated, and (3) the extent to which these inner processes can be reflected upon. From these three properties of independence, it can be seen that autonomy is on a sliding scale, rather than a binary property.

The final notion of relevance to the present discussion of autonomy is self-organisation, due to it being a central element in life, and in those properties which we desire artificial systems to have. While some have shied away from the use of this term because of the connotations of something doing the organising, the concept of self-organisation is generally used to refer to the spontaneous emergence of organisation, and/or the maintenance of the systems' organisation once in this state. An interesting aspect to the term self-organising is this: a self-organising system cannot be broken down into constituent parts for analysis since these parts are interdependent (an aspect likely to be emphasised by autopoietic approaches).

An additional aspect to the discussion of autonomy which is covered in this editorial paper is the theoretical tension between ALife (artificial life) and GOFAI (good old-fashioned AI) techniques. Where the latter has been often pilloried, the author points out a number of theoretical successes it has had in terms of describing autonomy and agency which has not been achieved by ALife due to its emphasis on lower level processes - an approach which in its own way has proven enormously successful in accounting for a number of mechanisms involved.

While this discussion of the term autonomy has not resulted in a hard and fast definition, the consideration of two closely related concepts (independence and self-organisation) has placed the term into a context applicable to a wide range of research fields. Indeed, this lack of a definite definition may prove to be more productive than counter-productive.

BODEN, M. (2008). Autonomy: What is it? Biosystems, 91(2), 305-308. DOI: 10.1016/j.biosystems.2007.07.003

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