R REMEMBER THE 1970S TV SHOW,
The Six Million Dollar Man It featured Lee
Majors as an injured astronaut rebuilt with
technology that made him faster, stronger, and
more capable. He was a cyborg, a fusion of man
Anyone with prosthetics — even someone with
eyeglasses — is a cyborg of sorts, but what really
excites the imagination is today’s news of direct
connection between brain and machine.
Last fall, University of Florida researcher Thomas
Demarse grew a culture of 25,000 rat neurons,
then watched as it taught itself to control an F- 22
flight simulator. In February, Klaus-Peter Zauner WE HAVE MET THE ARTIFICIAL
at the University of Southampton, U.K., hooked up INTELLIGENCE, AND HE IS US.
a slime mold to a six-legged robot. The biologically
controlled robot scrabbles away from bright lights,
emulating the behavior of the mold. Last year, a them, working daily as part of the application.
monkey with a brain implant learned to control a Without the programmers running the crawl at
robotic arm with its thoughts. In human clinical Google (and updating the anti-spam algorithms),
trials, paraplegic Brian Nagle has succeeded in without the users feeding the spiders by continu-playing video games with a similar implant. ously linking to new sites, the application stops
If it’s possible for neurons to control a machine, working. In a profound way, the users are part of
it should also be possible for machines to control the search engine. This turns out to be true in one
the brain. DARPA researchers recently presented a form or another for almost every breakthrough
plan to remotely control hammerhead sharks via a web application.
neural implant. The hope: stealth spies able to track I generalized this idea into one of the key prin-
enemy ships. ciples of Web 2.0, namely that Web 2.0 applications
But what has put bionics and the man-machine are systems for harnessing the collective intel-
interface on my radar lately isn’t just these modern ligence of their users. But the term bionic systems
echoes of old science fiction, but rather the idea that gives a new twist on this concept.
the latest web applications are forging a more subtle, I was talking about the idea of bionic software with
but no less profound, merger of man and machine. venture capitalist Tom Shields a few weeks ago, and
Boxxet founder You Mon Tsang recently introduced explaining how I thought old dreams of artificial intelli-
a new meme into my vocabulary: bionic software. gence are being replaced by this new model, in which
Boxxet is an example of such a system. It’s a col- we are creating more intelligent systems by using
laborative news site (a kind of “ my.digg.com”) in humans as components of the application. Shields
which customers can put Boxxet’s spiders to work neatly summed up the paradigm shift: “AI becomes
collecting data on any subject — and then site users IA” (Artificial Intelligence becomes Intelligence
rate the results to train the spider. The result is a Augmentation). We have met the AI, and he is us.
tool that harnesses both computers and humans to Now that I understand that we’re building a next
deliver better results than either can do alone. generation of bionic systems, I’m seeing them
When You Mon described Boxxet in this way, it everywhere. I’d love your thoughts. Where else are
struck me that this “bionic” aspect is critical to many you seeing this fusion of human and computer to
of the most successful web applications. Back in build capabilities beyond the reach of either alone?
2003, I began using an illustration of von Kempelen’s
Mechanical Turk in my talks, to emphasize the point Check makezine.com/06/nff for related stories.
that one of the things that distinguishes web
applications from PC-era applications is the fact Tim O’Reilly ( tim.oreilly.com) is founder and CEO of O’Reilly
that web applications actually have people inside Media, Inc. See what’s on the O’Reilly Radar at radar.oreilly.com.