It is a well-known fact that the biosphere is a set of nesting dolls. Eco-systems consist of groups that are comprised of organisms, which in turn are made of organs composed of tissues, which consist of cells made up of biochemical networks.
I propose a definition of an Individual based on its information-processing structure: the scale and types of goals that a system can pursue defines (determines) the boundaries and content of the putative “agent.”
The cognitive boundary of an Individual is the most distant (in time and space) set of events that this system can measure and attempts to regulate in its goal-directed activity.
The more a cell is connected to other cells in networks, the more processing capacity and the bigger the horizon of what the compound individual can potentially sense, remember, and store. Merging into communicating networks also enables more noise tolerance and robustness—the field of artificial neural networks exploits the fact that some kinds of networks facilitate extracting patterns from data and can ignore irrelevant details while picking up on salient patterns. Inevitably, the scope of the Self expands with this integrated, growing cognitive domain.
Joining into communicating networks allows each cell to have (self-regulated and temporally delayed) access to the information obtained by neighboring cells, as well as to form layered architectures with progressive layers abstracting patterns from raw data. In this way, the subunits not only expand their spatial range of perception but also can improve memory and a degree of predictive ability. The resulting larger Individual is formed with a cognitive world that is unified by the cells’ sharing of information across time and space.
How would we create an organism capable of such a meta-goal?