Boxxet founder You Mon Tsang recently introduced a new meme into my vocabulary: “bionic software.” As You Mon defines it, “Bionics is the study of living systems with the intention of applying their principles to the design of engineering systems.” But when we spoke a month or so ago, he used a folksier definition, referencing the seventies TV show The Six Million Dollar Man, which featured Lee Majors as an injured astronaut rebuilt with technology that made him faster, stronger, and more capable. Using this image, a bionic system is one that combines the biological and mechanical systems to create an enhanced system that is more powerful than either alone.
It strikes me that this “bionic” aspect is critical to many of the most successful web applications. Back in 2003, I began using an illustration of von Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk in my talks, to emphasize the point that one of the things that distinguishes web applications from PC-era applications is the fact that web applications actually have people inside them, working daily as part of the application. Without the programmers running the crawl at Google, filtering out the spam, and tuning the algorithms, the application stops working. Without the users feeding the spiders by continuously linking to new sites, the crawl turns up nothing new. In a profound way, the users are part of the application. This turns out to be true in one form or another for almost every breakthrough web application.
I generalized this idea into one of the key principles of Web 2.0, namely the architecture of participation, the idea that one of the most important principles in internet application design is to architect systems in such a way that they become more powerful the more they are used. But the term “bionic systems” gives a new twist on this concept.
What I realized after talking to You Mon is that systems that combine human and computer activity to produce better results than either can alone are becoming both more widespread and more explicit. Take for example flickr, which introduced the tag cloud to the web design palette. The tag cloud is a powerful user-interface element that is created dynamically by user activity. Or consider how digg.com explicitly harnesses its users to drive which stories go to the front page. (And yes, I’m aware that slashdot did this long before digg, but with digg, this feature is the heart of the site.)
It seems to me that what we’re seeing now is just the beginning of a really significant trend, as bionic systems become more widespread and variations on the technique more sophisticated. You Mon’s new startup, Boxxet, effectively lets people create a digg-like site for any topic they want to aggregate attention around, with users moderating up content that is initially acquired by a web spider. (The site is still in private beta, but should be open in a few weeks. You Mon is also presenting it at ETech this Wednesday.) Whereas a Google Alert, say, lets you harness the power of Google to track any topic that you want to follow, Boxxet lets you create a public, shared space in which to follow a topic you care about, and uses the opinions of your fellow readers to improve the automated results.
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk application makes an even more explicit tie between human and machine: it is a marketplace for tasks that combine human and computer processing. (I haven’t yet confirmed the fact, but I wonder if my May 2003 talk at an Amazon all-hands meeting, which featured my concept of the Mechanical Turk as a metaphor for web applications, inspired their service.)
I was talking about the idea of bionic software with Tom Shields of the Woodside Fund a few weeks ago, and explaining how I thought that the old dreams of artificial intelligence were being replaced by this new model, in which we are creating more intelligent systems by using humans as components of the application. Tom neatly summed up the paradigm shift: “AI becomes IA.” (“Artificial Intelligence becomes Intelligence Augmentation.”)
This is the power of memes: they are framing concepts that help you to see the world in a new way. Now that I understand that we’re building a next generation of bionic systems, I’m seeing them everywhere. I’d love your thoughts. Where else are you seeing this fusion of human and computer to build capabilities beyond the reach of either alone?
P.S. For the science fiction lovers among you, there’s a great take on this concept in Sean McMullen’s book, Souls in the Great Machine.