Proposal for research group: Autonomía Situada (Situated Autonomy)

Xabier Barandiaran

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Revision History
Revision 1.014th Octuber 2002
Revision 1.17th March 2002
Docbook formating and minor changes

Table of Contents

To generate autonomous and situated techno-cognitive power
To build a science of the possible

"No es función del pensamiento aislar un islote del pretérito, plegarlo sobre el gozne del presente y calcar en el futuro el perfil de una promesa. Más propio al pensamiento es la actitud insolente, la disidencia, la crítica del tejido de relaciones que constituyen el presente para servir de prólogo a un mañana siempre incierto." PATXI LANCEROS


In this document we are looking to sketch the main motives for the creation of the research group Situated Autonomy. They aren't under any means, closed motives, nor exclusive. This is not mean to be a definitive manifest but an open proposal for discussion and reflection of what we want to be. Under the title "Why" we include three main motives by which the pleasure of collective learning and research is enforced by a series of reflections around the significance of the project we are about to built. Under the title "How" we group a number of ideas about how this adventure could be developed. We hope the proposal will serve as a first step to start walking.


Beyond our will to share and produce knowledge collectivelly; beyond our interest on creating a space for research open to diverse participation; beyond this kind of reasons which sufficiently justify the creation of our collective we believe that there are a number of political, cognitive and technological catalizers which are called to be important reference points for us:

To generate autonomous and situated techno-cognitive power

The sources of social (productive, structural and organizative) power have progresivelly been displaced towards the sources of innovation and cognitive production. This source of power is mainly in hands of big corporations and the academic institutions they found. It is more and more common for academic research programs to be market oriented for they aproval and founding. It can be argued that the scientific method is a quite neutral method to achieve knowledge (as far as the scientist's prejudices do not influence the result of an experimental process), but it is, nontheless, clear that the techno-scientific system is not gouverned by a neutral dynamic, but responds to spedific interests and commands which are found to be progressivelly further away from the interests of an open society: research is driven towards short and middle-term market benefits and not necesarilly towards the solution of social worries (unless they produce indirect benefits). Our societies' organizational dynamics are further and further away from a collectivelly generated subjectivity (autonomy), our society is organized by and for a number of systemic processes (corporations, markets, wars, etc.) decoupled from our autonomy and identity while violently transforming it.

For the first time in history science as a collective good and enterprise is found to be menaced by the legal war machinery of patent industry, designed and commanded for the comerzialization of scientific knowledge.

To situate the sources of technocientific power in the processes of social self-organized creation (social movements, cognitive communities, etc.) is a lacking and urgent task. That's why the creation of this group, situated in the network of cognitive and political collective processes such as, hackmeetings and the free software community (among others) goes beyond the mere being a "club" of people interested in the sciences of the artificial.

To build a science of the possible

We find convenient here to cite Ashby (a pioneering 50's ciberneticist ) whose "An introduction to cybernetics" is an ashtonishing prelude of the sciences of the artificial: "Finally a set may be created by the fiat of the theoretician who, not knowing which state a particular machine is at, wants to trace out the consequences of all the possibilities. The set now is not the set of what does exist, but the set of what may exist (so far as the theoretician is concerned). This method is typically cybernetic, for it considers the actual in relation with the wider set of the possible or the conceivable." [1]

In fact cybernetics (and next to it the field of Artificial Live, as the present relief of the "forgoten" foundations of classical cybernetics), goes beyond the framework of what-does-exist to think and build what may-exist (an allready present dualism in the foundational Alife paper[2]). We can make a a fast clasification of sciences in three main groups (a clasification which deserves a further justification but serves intuitive purposes here):

  1. Sciences of the universal

  2. Sciences of the actual

  3. Sciences of the posible

Physics and, in general, "strong" sciences belong to the first group (paradigm of traditional epistemology). This sciences of the universal deal with the laws of nature whose applicability does not require to take specific constraints into account [3] , thus their objetive, universal and necessary character. But science goes into other not so "universal" subjects: life, mind and economy (to mention a few of them). The sciences of the actual work upon what does exist, they look for probabilistic predictions of a number of systems surrounding us, they abstract knowledge from a number of assumed conditions (DNA structure, racionality, stability of production processes, etc.) and from the statistics obtained from the observed variables. The sciences of the actual are blind to "see" futher than what there is, condaining human knowledge to the actual.

Finally the sciences of the possible work upon the constraints that make possible the actual, they work upon the conditions of possibility, upon the variations of what makes possible the actual from the universal. The science of the possible interrogates about the "how" of the actual, thus discovering other possible real-izations. That is the case of cybernetics and artificial life, of system theory and complexity theory and non-cartesian cognitive science. This way, for example, the study of the conditions that make life possible, that make posible the dynamics of a system be closed to generate its own autonomy, discover "life-as-it-could-be" and, next to it, other possible modes of organization different to those surrounding us.


As an squematic brainstorming we show here a number of possibilities for the realization of this project, some of which are already in course.

  • Mailing lists

    • Asambly:

    • Research groups

    • Reading/discussion groups

  • To make a who is who

    • It would be convenient to make a short list of who is who for the people who is beginning for them to have a sort of landscape view of the main figures in the field of the sciences of the artificial.

  • Tutorials and links to free tools

    • LaTeX (text and mathematical formuli editor, broadly used in science)

    • Gnuplot (mathematical plotting program)

    • Octave (matrix manipulation program, free equivalent of Matlab)

    • DDLAB (Discrete Dynamics Lab)

    • Programming languages

  • Howtos

    • Howto to use the internal resources of the group

    • Howto for article writing

    • Howto for reference making

    • Howto for creating your own research group

  • Weblog and/or wiki

    • Internal and external links

    • News

    • Advances in the field

  • CVS repository of programs and texts in development

  • Online courses

    • Textbook kind of courses

    • Course of the kind: reading recomendations, additional resources (such as exercises, questions, summaries, etc.)

    • Courses via IRC

  • Collective Bibliographies

    • Introduction to Cognitive Science

    • Introduction to system theory and complexity

    • Introduction to Artificial Life

    • Extensive bibliographies (althought it might be too dificult to improve the ones already in the www)

  • Virtual library with texts writen by group member and/or collaborators

  • Dictionaries

  • Philosophy and internal documents

    • Objectives

    • Reasons for interdisciplinary open research

    • Internal organization: howtos for administration of weblog, wiki, linker and other applications.

    • Recomendations and formatting of courses, paper, etc.

  • List of collaborators, members, parallel proyects, etc.

    • People: presentation of members, reseach interests, knowledge and experience and proyects on which we are involved

    • Other similar projects: RunlevelZero, Hacklabs, Sindominio, Unanomada, Pricipia Cybernetica, Calresco, Laser, etc.

[1] Ashby, R.W. (1957) "An introduction to cybernetics". Chapman and Hall, London, 1956. p.136. de la versión online (1999):

[2] In 1989 Christopher Langton published a paper under the title "Artificial Life" in the proceedings of a workshop in Santa Fe Institute:"Artificial Life: Proceedings of an Interdisciplinary Workshop on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems", Santa Fe Institute Studies in the Sciences of Complexity, Proceedings, 6; Redwood City, Calif.: Addison-Wesley. This paper unifies a series of research proyects under the label of Artificial Life through the methodological nature of the object of study which defined them. Langton defines the object of study of Alife as "life-as-it-could-be" as opposed to "life-as-we-know-it". In the methodological side Alife is characterized by its "bottom-up synthetic approach": a synthetic or constructive approach in which bottom level local and non-linear interactions are simulated/builded in order to achieve higher level patterns and dynamics characteristic of complex systems (in opposition to the traditional analytic method of decomposition and analysis of components).

[3] The difference between law and constraint is of fundamental significance here: a law determines a space of prediction and universal and necessary aplicability. The laws of nature are hold independently of the initial conditions of a system, they are general and absolute. Constraints, on the other hand, are the reduction of the variability of a system whose local dynamics are determined by laws: constrains include boundary and initial conditions. In other words, the origin of life is not something entailed exclusivelly by the laws of nature but from this laws and a series of initial and boundary conditions (such as temperature, carbon based molecular compositions, autocatalitic processes, operational closure, etc.) which have to be postulated and specified for the origin of life to be explained and predicted. A phenomenon such as life, to become a scientific object, is not just specifiable by physical laws, but requires some "extra" information, never contained in the universal laws. This extra information is what constraints specify.