autonomy and immune systems

by Sebastian Benthall

Somewhat disillusioned lately with the inflated discourse on “Artificial Intelligence” and trying to get a grip on the problem of “collective intelligence” with others in the Superintelligence and the Social Sciences seminar this semester, I’ve been following a lead (proposed by Julian Jonker) that perhaps the key idea at stake is not intelligence, but autonomy.

I was delighted when searching around for material on this to discover Bourgine and Varela’s “Towards a Practice of Autonomous Systems” (pdf link) (1992). Francisco Varela is one of my favorite thinkers, though he is a bit fringe on account of being both Chilean and unafraid of integrating Buddhism into his scholarly work.

The key point of the linked paper is that for a system (such as a living organism, but we might extend the idea to a sociotechnical system like an institution or any other “agent” like an AI) to be autonomous, it has to have a kind of operational closure over time–meaning not that it is closed to interaction, but that its internal states progress through some logical space–and that it must maintain its state within a domain of “viability”.

Though essentially a truism, I find it a simple way of thinking about what it means for a system to preserve itself over time. What we gain from this organic view of autonomy (Varela was a biologist) is an appreciation of the fact that an agent needs to adapt simply in order to survive, let alone to act strategically or reproduce itself.

Bourgine and Varela point out three separate adaptive systems to most living organisms:

  • Cognition. Information processing that determines the behavior of the system relative to its environment. It adapts to new stimuli and environmental conditions.
  • Genetics. Information processing that determines the overall structure of the agent. It adapts through reproduction and natural selection.
  • The Immune system. Information processing to identify invasive micro-agents that would threaten the integrity of the overall agent. It creates internal antibodies to shut down internal threats.

Sean O Nuallain has proposed that ones sense of personal self is best thought of as a kind of immune system. We establish a barrier between ourselves and the world in order to maintain a cogent and healthy sense of identity. One could argue that to have an identity at all is to have a system of identifying what is external to it and rejecting it. Compare this with psychological ideas of ego maintenance and Jungian confrontations with “the Shadow”.

At an social organizational level, we can speculate that there is still an immune function at work. Left and right wing ideologies alike have cultural “antibodies” to quickly shut down expressions of ideas that pattern match to what might be an intellectual threat. Academic disciplines have to enforce what can be said within them so that their underlying theoretical assumptions and methodological commitments are not upset. Sociotechnical “cybersecurity” may be thought of as a kind of immune system. And so on.

Perhaps the most valuable use of the “immune system” metaphor is that it identifies a mid-range level of adaptivity that can be truly subconscious, given whatever mode of “consciousness” you are inclined to point to. Social and psychological functions of rejection are in a sense a condition for higher-level cognition. At the same time, this pattern of rejection means that some information cannot be integrated materially; it must be integrated, if at all, through the narrow lens of the senses. At an organizational or societal level, individual action may be rejected because of its disruptive effect on the total system, especially if the system has official organs for accomplishing more or less the same thing.

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