Autonomy is a system’s capacity to produce, sustain and regulate itself and its relationship with the environment it co-determines. Ultimately autonomous systems are those capable of defining them-selves (autos) and their norms or rules of operations (nomos).
In the Proceedings of the First European Conference on Artificial Life [Varela & Bourgine (1991) Towards a Practice of Autonomous Systems. Proc. of the First ECAL, pages xi-xvi] a full research program on the artificial implementation of autonomous systems was envisioned. According to that view, autonomy was the fundamental property underlying both the phenomenon of life and cognition, so the challenge of the new artificial sciences (if they were to illuminate our understanding of those phenomena) consisted in the simulation or realization of systems with increasingly autonomous capacities. Artificial autonomy was taken up as a difficult but achievable research goal, the pursual of which could contribute to the merging of paradigms, the new, Artificial Life and the old, Artificial Intelligence, and moreover, could help to uncover some of the most elusive properties of biological organization.
The main topic of the workshop is to evaluate the 20 years of practice of autonomous systems from that first ECAL up to the ECAL taking place this August, 2011; to review the state of the art and the future challenges and research milestones. The notions of autonomy, autopoiesis, emergence, enaction, etc. have played a central role in Artificial Life but have also experienced a relative displacement as the field has made progress on more specific and specialized research fields (from network topology to ant intelligence, from evolutionary robotics to multicellular development). We believe that increasingly specialized trends in Artificial Life should also be balanced with renewed attempts for integrative approaches. In this sense, reviewing and recovering the visionary and pioneering notion of autonomy 20 years later provides a challenging opportunity to re-assemble Artificial Life back into the organism-centered, emergent, holistic yet mathematically and conceptually mature notion of autonomy.