"Cyber-Enabled Bionic Organisms"?

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One of the many interesting talks next week at Penn will be one by Alper Bozkurt, on the “Internet of Bionic Things: Cyber-Enabled Bionic Organisms for Environmental Sensing". His abstract:

The present day technology falls short in offering autonomous mobile robots that can function effectively and efficiently under unknown and dynamic environmental conditions. Insects and canines, on the other hand, exhibit an unmatched ability to navigate through a wide variety of environments and overcome perturbations by successfully maintaining control and stability. In this talk, Dr. Alper Bozkurt will present how microsystems based neural stimulation and physiological monitoring systems are used to wirelessly navigate cockroaches and train dogs to enable cyber-physical working animals. These biobots can potentially assist humans in environmental sensing and search-and-rescue applications to pinpoint hazardous material or to find earthquake victims. This is one of the on-going efforts under Integrated Bionic MicroSystems Laboratory (iBionicS Lab) which has a vision to introduce conceptually novel neural engineering methodologies and systems to interface artificial systems with biological organisms towards the next generation bionic cyber-physical systems. Such cyber-physical systems would be the building blocks of a new era where everything is connected to each other through the Internet of Things.

"Bionit Things"? "Cyber-enabled Bionic Organisms"? "Cyber-physical working animals?" "Biobots"? "Bionic cyber-physical systems"?

Dr. Bozkurt's web page offers some other candidate terms: "… interfacing microtechnologies with metamorphic development of insects for building remotely controlled biobotic organisms (insect cyborgs)…". And his iBionics lab page offers "bioMEMS" (= bio-micro-electro-mechanical-systems), exploring "explores novel interfaces with sensory and motor neurons, cockroaches, sphinx moths, plants, birds, canines, lemurs and humans" on the way to that goal of "building a cyber-physical systems based new era where everything is connected to each other through the Internet of Things".

In the end, perhaps we'll all be Wikileaks flybots on various interesting walls, while signing up for systems that claim to allow only beneficial probiobiotic cyberbacteria to infect our cybermicrobiome, and to prevent hostile cyber-ribosomes and golgibots from hacking our cellular cyberphysiology. Meanwhile, teams of Russian cyberbiologists will be striving to perfect new strains of bioransomware, while police webdogs try to sniff them out…

But this is Language Log, not Speculative Dystopian Fiction Log, so my topic this morning is a simple matter of predictive neologistics.

Assuming that our future will be full of Cyber-Enabled Bionic Organisms (or Cyber-Physical Working Animals, or Bionic Cyber-Physical Systems, or Cyber-Enabled Bionic Organisms, or whatever), what will we call them?

Will there be a single cover term, like biobots? Or lots of specific names for particular cases and subcases, like netkaryotescyber-roaches, flyborgs, webdogs, …

Will we systematically distinguish quasi-autonomous cyber-organisms like ant-borgs from subcellular cyber-organelles like net-ribosomes,  or will we finally abandon the whole oppressive organism-ist fallacy?

And crucially, will IPv6, with its maximum of 2128 = 3.4 x 1038 possible addresses, be up to the task of handling the "new era where everything is connected to each other through the Internet of Things"? Pending colonization of the Kuiper Belt, or assigning an IP address to every earthly atom, we should be safe for a while — apparently there are only about 5 x 1030 prokaryotes on (and in) planet Earth, and the total number of eukaryotic cells should be substantially smaller. Even putting every grain of sand on the web should only add another 1019 addresses or so.

Unfortunately I'll miss Dr. Bozkurt's talk, due to being in Argentina at the time. During the month of November I will have traveled to China, Argentina, and France — this is a complaint (or perhaps a confession of poor planning), not a boast, since I'm also teaching a large undergraduate class, supervising research, submitting grant proposals, dealing with personal life, and all the other usual things. The trips' purposes are good ones, but I would have been happier to be able to carry them out in Scranton or Baltimore.

[Also, I assume that some others will join me in finding "everything is connected to each other" a bit off. It's clear what it means, but at some point I formed the idea that "each other" is limited to binary relations. Obviously this is a point on which the language is changing, or has changed, or maybe was never any other way…]


  1. Rodger C said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 7:52 am

    remotely controlled biobotic organisms (insect cyborgs)

    You mean we'll imitate fungi?

    but at some point I formed the idea that "each other" is limited to binary relations

    "Everything is connected to one another" sounds just as odd to me.

  2. unekdoud said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 8:12 am

    To maximize confusion, we should call all of these remotely networked organic mechanisms drones.

  3. Keith said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 8:14 am

    That is surely one of the most clumsily-worded abstracts that I have ever seen.
    A world where "everything is connected to each other", really? Why not where "everything is connected to everything else"?
    And what are these "train dogs" that are mentioned int he same sentence as cockroaches? Are these dogs that live on trains, or that work on trains? Are they employed to sniff out fare-dodgers?

    [(myl) With respect to "each other", despite prescriptive concerns going back to the infamous Goold Brown, there is plenty of historical support for non-binary-reciprocal usage, e.g. Tessalonians 1:3 in the KJV:

    We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth;

    Or Joseph Conrad:

    …the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.

    Though I think something more is going on here, since "Everything is connected to one another" seems even worse to me, and I agree that "Everything is connected to everything else" goes down a lot easier.

    But anyhow, Bozkurt's English is so much better than my Turkish (and probably yours as well) that it would be churlish to complain about his prose style.]

  4. Rodger C said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 8:52 am

    I think "train dogs" is an infinitive phrase parallel to "navigate cockroaches."

    [(myl) Of course you're right —]

  5. philip said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 9:18 am

    How does 'everything is connected' sound to anyone?

  6. Mark Young said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 9:19 am

    Might it be the strangeness of the strangeness of "each other" going back to a singular? "All things are connected to each other" sounds OK to me. I'd say "The committee members are connected to each other" is fine, but "The committee is connected to each other" is weird. Might Brits find "The committee are connected to each other" fine?

  7. Mark Young said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 9:20 am

    Oh, the strangeness of the strangeness of not being able to see a mistake until after you've posted it piublicly….

  8. Mark Young said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 9:20 am


  9. Jonathan said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 9:53 am


  10. db48x said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 10:18 am

    That was a good laugh. I need some net-ribosomes myself.

    Incidentally, although IPv6 addresses are 128 bits long, there are not 2^128 possible addresses. Aside from various reserved address ranges, alternate addressing schemes, and v4-to-v6 tunnelling mechanisms, your ISP probably gives out 2^64 addresses (or more!) to every customer, largely to ensure backwards compatibility.

    [(myl) Do you really mean 2^64 ~= 1.8 x 10^19 per customer? That would allow each of the 10 billion bacteria in the customer's microbiome to have a billion IP addresses of its very own, unless my mental arithmetic is wrong (which it often is…)]

  11. bks said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 10:22 am

    Aren't the links between things also things?

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 10:37 am

    I think "biot", from Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, has potential, especially since it contains the initialism for "Internet of Things". By the way, we're talking about the same IoT that was used in a denial-of-service attack a couple weeks ago, right?

    [(myl) Exactly — can't wait for the first cybercockroach-mediated DDOS attack.]

  13. Sniffnoy said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 4:31 pm

    Yes, what ever will we call these Cyber-Enabled Bionic Organisms? :P

    (…or was that the joke?)

  14. Guy said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

    "Each other" is fine for more than two. Are there really people who think "they all hate each other" sounds off? I agree that "everything … each other" sounds off, but I think that's because "each other" suggests a definite "border" around the group in discussion, with special emphasis on distributive meaning, whereas "everything" does not. I don't think it has anything to do with "each other" being allegedly dual.

  15. David Fried said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 7:59 pm

    I'm still struggling with the idea of "navigating a cockroach," which suggests many wonderful possibilities: reefs of cockroaches at sea that must be avoided; standing atop a floating cockroach with a GPS unit, etc. (Not a sextant, because the navigating must be done "wirelessly."

  16. chris said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 9:08 pm

    A system of cyborg insects sounds awfully complicated, I bet it'll be a real pain to debug.

    And what if the interconnections become complex enough to form some kind of hive mind?

  17. maidhc said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 11:29 pm

    I'm not sure I would call it a bio-bot, but an internet-connected dog could be very useful. Dogs are pretty smart, and I'm sure you could train them to work remotely via a camera and voice control interface. Perhaps even a remotely controlled treat dispenser as well. That could work well in a search and rescue operation.

    I've seen remotely controlled sheepdogs do some pretty amazing things, even though they were being controlled only by whistling from a half mile away.

    I'm not sure how useful an army of remotely controlled cockroaches would be. It's hard to think of an application area. And it would be awfully tedious to get them all wired up.

  18. rosie said,

    November 11, 2016 @ 10:20 am

    I agree with Mark Young's first point. To me, "everything is connected to each other" is ungrammatical, because "everything" is distributive and singular in meaning (not merely singular grammatically). Replace "everything" with "each thing" — see what I mean?

  19. Amy Stoller said,

    November 11, 2016 @ 10:40 am

    Are we sure that abstract wasn’t written by a spambot?

  20. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 11, 2016 @ 9:20 pm

    Arthur C. Clarke wrote a cautionary tale about this 60 years ago.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 11, 2016 @ 11:14 pm

    Sniffnoy: Yes, what ever will we call these Cyber-Enabled Bionic Organisms? :P

    (…or was that the joke?)

    I think "cyborg" is inextricably associated with humans.

    Guy: "Each other" is fine for more than two. Are there really people who think "they all hate each other" sounds off?

    Sure, though probably only because of the prescription. (And I used to work with someone who preferred "one another" to "each other" in all situations.)

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