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Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Bionic Software

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 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.

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Comments: 26

Dharmesh Shah   [03.06.06 05:37 PM]

Very intriguging concept.

Am wondering if we should have one of those "powered by" logos for all of the web applications that are bionic in nature.

"Powered By The Collective"

This would be displayed on applications that somehow manage to harness the power of human intelligence and computers to achieve a better result than either could deliver alone.

Seth   [03.06.06 08:06 PM]

In many ways Ray Kurzweil's discussion of the concept of Singularity relates to the idea of Bionic Software.

If information technology is accelerating at an exponential rate then it is possible that we are fast approaching the first phases of artificial intelligence.

Perhaps this so-called "weak" AI or Bionic Software harnesses much of its power through the ability to augment the unique strengths of humans such as powerful pattern recoginition and the learning that can be exposed through the collective intelligence.

The software of 3 to 5 years from now may permit far superior capabilities in voice or visual recognition agents that can do tasks for you that augment your reach and improve by mass participation and usage.

(i.e. "yo find me the cheapest flight to hawaii and tell me how many calories are in this bowl of yogurt granola and banana that I'm eating oh and find me a nice date on myspace that lives near me and is smart and funny and cool")

Johan   [03.07.06 09:24 AM]

The term 'bionic software' brought a phrase coined by Steve Jobs to my mind: "A computer is a bicycle for the mind" ...

Andrew   [03.08.06 02:14 PM]

Heck "AI becomes IA" could be expanded to "Artificial Intelligence becomes Information Architecture." Tagging informs systems about data relationships and relevance; Mechanical Turk "HITs" inform the system about facts (and possibly reputation).

tsal   [03.08.06 02:34 PM]

Until today, I had no idea Tim had a blog. Neat!

On the subject matter, I've been pondering how to build the ultimate game on the web - one that's developed, marketed, and distributed by the players and the community around it. Open source to the next extreme.

I've already decided that I need:

* A good peer-to-peer technology for storage, networking and distributed processing
* An army of programmers, starting out
* A good embed-ready scripting language (such as Python)

I think bionic software may well be the glue that holds it all together. Or at least, the "infrastructure" to the whole thing.

Mikkel Holm Soerensen   [03.09.06 07:17 AM]

I made a PhD in biomimetic (another term for bionics) IT design back in 2004 titled: Ambient Intelligence Ecologies - Toward Biomimetic IT. I'm sure my work will interest some of you guys. Explore it right here:

Kurt   [03.09.06 08:14 PM]

The point that You Mon makes that I think really captures the power behind bionic systems is their ability to "amplify participation". The best social apps out there now are not simply extracting the wisdom of crowds, they can take a little participation, and create alot of value. As we keep hearing, attention is scarce, and there will not be enough participation to keep all these new social apps healthy. The ones that may stand the test of time will be the ones that can maximize what little human input the are able to squeeze out of our time. I'm not sure Tim's post captures this component of You Mon's meme. Digg is just simple voting, what does digg do to amplify the input it gets from its users? Compare that to Flickr's interestingness - which takes simple, mostly implicitly derived factors (number of views, number of comments, etc), adds some bionic super-sauce, and out pops "interesting" photos. And it probably wouldnot produce a list of less interesting photos if the number of comments posted each day were to drop significantly - they've amplified the value of the participation they are getting.

Steve Johnston   [10.03.06 09:52 AM]

As one of the first softwarephysicists, I started doing bionic programming in 1985. For some historical perspective, take a look at:

Tim van Gelder   [12.06.06 04:08 AM]

Regrettably, Tom Shields' statement that "Artificial Intelligence becomes Intelligence Augmentation" misuses the term "Intelligence Augmentation" and muddies the waters in a crucial way. See

Tim O'Reilly   [12.06.06 08:05 AM]

I understand completely that Tom was not using "intelligence augmentation" the way that Doug Englebart used it. But that's why it's such a provocative statement. An image like this gains its power from its ability to help us see something with fresh eyes. It's like Pogo's classic "We have met the enemy and he is us." Saying "we used to think our computers would make us smarter, but now we're realizing that they are using us to make them smarter" is a very provocative statement....

kent   [06.07.07 12:14 PM]

In the beginning there was International Business Machines (IBM) and a few others. We figured, those who were pounding out punch cards and hoping there were no typos in the program, that we were the smarties at dumb terminals. Now that terminals are very smart, I hope that the operators and data researchers are more intelligent. I do not wish to see dumb people at super-quantum-singularity type computers. We really should rename computers. Fuzzy bio friends.
Fuzybios, like dogs; but they never will listen as well or be as loyal...

Allest   [06.09.07 10:26 AM]

The term 'bionic software' brought a phrase coined by Steve Jobs to my mind: "A computer is a bicycle for the mind" ...

Tomasz Gorski   [07.16.07 07:32 AM]

Thanks for very intriguging concept. I agree with You it's interestng idea! And it's maybe the future od software!

Sebastian Snopek   [07.24.07 09:43 AM]

Interesting concept sooner or later we shall see whether this is the future of software. People becoming components in software... That is quite bizarre for me.
Best regards,

Web Directory   [08.09.07 06:20 PM]

Interesting software, kinda weird also.

Guido Marc   [08.10.07 08:43 AM]

Really interesting, but i think it will take a few years to see in which way the people are integrated in soft- or hardware. It´s really bizarre... Cheers

K-Net   [08.18.07 01:03 PM]

Bionic software could drive my imagination into areas I do not want to think about...

Greg   [08.23.07 07:43 AM]

Ok, I've got to admit the thing that caught my eye most about in this article is the mention of the Six Million Dollar Man! I had a hard time digesting the rest of the article because I was going back to the day when that was my favorite show! I know, that pretty much dates me...but imagine a today's version of that show! How cool would that be?

Jason Falk   [08.25.07 11:54 PM]

It really is strange stuff. Intriging yes but certainly unsettling. I once saw a movie called "virus" where a ship is overtaken by a "bionic software" type alien, now that was freaky!

I guess in all seriousness though this technology can be used for both good or evil purposes lets just hope it saves some lives and helps the environment, I say bring it on.

Poemas   [09.04.07 12:43 PM]

People always get it wrong when they try to anticipate when bionic people will walk in the streets and the cars will fly so I really don't think this is happening in the near future...

Bob   [09.17.07 03:14 PM]

When i think about bionic software it remembers me on the 6-million-dollar man. If the software development will follow this way... i´m afraid... Best regards, Bob

Tom Black   [09.24.07 04:47 AM]

Thanks for very interesting article. Keep up the good work. Regards

Poemas de Amor   [10.08.07 12:10 PM]

Tom Shields concept about Intelligence Augmentation is really interesting, I think that this could be a turnaround to the incapacity to develop AI programs.
Probably due to this incapacity, we have started to develop "bio" systems and of course, internet is a natural medium to connect massive amounts of human beings.

Transport międzynarodowy   [10.29.07 12:47 AM]

Thenk you for this informations.

Tercüme bürosu   [10.31.07 10:08 AM]

Thanks for very intriguging concept..

büromöbel dedicated   [12.21.07 03:24 AM]

very interesting topic it sounds like "matrix" or "terminator" (the day when the machines begin to life). thank you for the book info "Souls in the Great Machine" i don´t know it but i will read it.
happy xmas all together.

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