Autogenous or autopoietic?

Back in April, I wrote:

Nanotechnology, the revolutionary technology, was always about the power of self-replication and never only about the very small.

The ability of a machine system to make more of itself, or more generally, make its own parts and be able to assemble or replace them as needed, is called autogeny.  There’s a very related concept in wider use called autopoiesis, which is essentially a description of certain biological or ecological systems.

An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.

There’s a key difference.  I defined autogeny (it’s a real word, or at least “autogenous” is, and I merely specialized it to this technical meaning) as a subset of what autopoiesis means.  An autopoietic system is a process,not an object.  It can not only make its own parts but does so constantly, replacing the ones it’s made of (“continuously regenerate”).  It has an identity that is more like that of the Ship of Theseus than a simple object.  You and I are autopoietic on a number of different levels: Our cells constantly rebuild and replace themselves on the molecular level; our minds constantly learn and re-integrate the ideas they’re made of — memories not regularly used and re-remembered tend to fade.

Auytogeny takes half of that idea in a more mechanistic sense and can be used to describe a permanent physical object.  My nano-manufacturing system, for example, is autopoietic in its growing phase where early early-generation inefficient machines are replaced by late-generation ones, but merely atuogenous thereafter.  Utility Fog in use would constitute an autopoietic system — individual foglets would be constantly failing and being replaced. But a simple nanofactory is merely autogenous. An autogenous system makes its own parts but doesn’t (necessarily) constantly replace them.  Like most machines, it needs to be fixed from the outside if it breaks.

But in early engineering stages, autogeny is enough.  It’s a good simplification as a halfway point in engineering toward advanced, autopoietic, nanosystems with the kind of complexity and robustness that life has.

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