What exactly is a cyborg? The term is becoming more common but remains somewhat vague, so I decided to drill down through the etymology and how it’s evolved to get a better understanding of its exact meaning.
The term was first coined by Austrian neuroscientist Manfred Clynes as a combination of “cybernetic” and “organism.” Organism—that’s easy. “Cybernetic” is a bit more difficult. The official definition of cybernetics: “the science of communication and control theory that is concerned especially with the comparative study of automatic control systems.”
So that’s no help.
Wiktionary gives me the following definitions of cyborg:
(science fiction) a person who is part machine, a robot who is part organic
(science fiction) a robot who has an organic past
a human with electronic or bionic prostheses
This raises the first of two big questions that need answering for a more specific definition:
1) Is a cyborg a human who is part machine, a fully synthetic being that is at partly organic, or both?
Again, there is probably no definitive answer. But I’m going to make an executive decision and choose only the last of the three Wiktionary definitions—the one without the “science fiction” designation. The previous two are just robots or androids.
So now we have:
a human with electronic or bionic prostheses
This makes sense because the increase in the use of cyborg today is specific to this definition—real humans with electronic or bionic prostheses.
But let’s expand this a bit. I don’t like using only the term “prostheses,” which denotes an “artificial body part.” Having an electronic or bionic prosthesis can qualify a person as a cyborg, but it’s too narrow a definition. What about people who have implanted entirely non-replacement devices or enhancements into their body?
A chip implanted in the brain isn’t a prosthesis—it’s not a replacement for something. It’s an addition to existing biology. And additions to our biology for the purposes of enhancing function are about to become all the rage…
So let’s try this. A cyborg is:
a human with electronic or bionic prostheses, modifications, or additions to their original biology
Clunky. I’m working on it.
It’s also still vague. Which brings us to the second big question:
2) When it comes to classifying someone as a cyborg, where’s the line?
I know people who insist that anyone with contact lenses is a cyborg. Or anyone with electronic hearing aids. Or someone who wore Google Glass for an entire day.
These don’t work for me. It’s too broad, and it includes a huge section of the current human population. When Google Glass was a thing back in 2013, an organization called “Stop the Cyborgs” briefly popped up to protest them. But they were protesting wearable cameras, not cyborgs.
More difficult is the question of arm and leg prostheses. What if they are non-electronic and non-bionic? Are you a cyborg if you have an arm prosthesis that is plastic and metal and has moving parts, but doesn’t operate under electronic or battery power?
Some news outlets have described artist Neil Harbisson as the world’s first “legally recognized cyborg.” He has a visible antenna implanted in his skull that allows him to see color. I’ll grant that he qualifies, but “legally recognized” is probably a stretch. It’s his own term based on the fact that his passport photo includes his implant. Well…
However, I do like his definition of cyborg: “For me, a cyborg is someone who feels their technology is a part of their biology.”
This is closer to what I’m looking for, though I’m still not quite sure how to articulate it as part of the definition.
a human with electronic or bionic prostheses, modifications, or additions to their original biology… that really FEELS it, dude
Harbisson certainly feels his cyborg component; it’s part of his brain now.
But what about actress Angel Giuffiria, who has a highly mechanized prosthetic arm?
Her arm is myoelectric [muscle-controlled prosthetic], so I’d say yes, definitely a cyborg. She proudly embraces the term, often posting with #cyborgproblems on Twitter. Said problems have included finding a dead spider inside her prosthetic and having to choose between charging her phone or her arm in airports.
We shouldn’t be limited to the term cyborg. I’ve seen bionic person used, but that feels too much like robot. I tend to prefer the term modified human or just modified, which is also quite broad yet somehow less confusing than cyborg.
As cybernetic implants become more common, the nomenclature will have to grow more complex. If a woman appeared tomorrow who had less than 10% of her original human body still intact (think Robocop), we’d have to call her a cyborg just as we call Giuffiria a cyborg, though the two would barely qualify as the same species.
Maybe we’ll have cyborg lite and extreme? Sr. and Jr.?
Work in progress.
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s exciting edition of Merriam-Webster, Future Shock! Long-winded etymology makes your heart race, doesn’t it? I didn’t solve anything, and I’m sure plenty would disagree with my still-mushy definition. But it was fun to pare down the ubiquitous “cyborg” term to something that I can apply with more precision.
Now, go forth! Find the cyborgs. Love them.