The Man Who First Said 'Cyborg,' 50 Years Later

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We're gathered here today to celebrate Manfred Clynes. Fifty years ago, he coined the word "cyborg" to describe an emerging hybrid of man's machines and man himself. The word itself combined cybernetics, the then-emerging discipline of feedback and control, and organism.

The word appeared in an article called "Cyborgs and Space," in the journal Astronautics' September 1960 issue. Just to be precise, here's how the word was introduced:

"For the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously, we propose the term 'Cyborg,'" wrote Clynes and his co-author Nathan Kline, both of Rockland State University.

From that catchy description, it might not have been immediately apparent that Cyborg was destined to become the label for a profound myth, hope and fear specific to our era. But Clynes knew from the beginning that the phenomenon he'd identified was deeply important.

I reached him at his home in Sonoma, California, where the 85 year old is working away on perfecting Beethoven's last quartets.

"I expected the word cyborg to survive," Clynes said, although he realizes it has been emptied of some of its original meaning. "It's interesting in the history to see how a word can have a life of its own."

Tim Maly's incredible project to catalog 50 responses to the word cyborg ends with this post -- and the breadth and depth of the contributions is a testament to the vigor of the word's post-Clynes life. But his original conception is still important, and captures something that I think has been lost in our current definitions.

Here's the thing: For most of us, cyborg ends at the human-machine hybrid. The point of the cyborg is to be a cyborg; it's an end unto itself. But for Clynes, the interface between the organism and the technology was just a means, a way of enlarging the human experience. That knotty first definition? It ran under this section headline: "Cyborgs -- Frees Man to Explore."

The cyborg was not less human, but more.

"The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel," Clynes and Kline wrote.

They offered up this idea in the context of MAN IN SPACE, the grand scientific project of the 60s. "Space travel challenges mankind not only technologically but spiritually, in that it invites man to take an active part in his own biological evolution," the Astronautics paper began. "Scientific advances of the future may thus be utilized to permit man's existence in environments which differ radically from those provided by nature as we know it."

They criticized the idea of creating human-ready environments up in space, arguing humans should adapt themselves to extraterrestrial conditions, whatever those might be.

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It's important to remember that they wrote all this stuff before Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel in space. Quite honestly, we had no idea what space would do to our bodies over the long-haul, but space scientists were not shy about hazarding and testing hypotheses.

In the decade after Clynes paper, NASA scientists would publish hundreds of paper about the human body's physiology. New biological data poured in from the space program. The literature was a non-medical kind of applied physiology and it seemed largely concerned with how the healthy body handled extremes. Papers like "Human Tolerance to Rapidly Applied Accelerations: A Summary of the Literature" were the norm.

Under those circumstances, the body's natural control systems became fascinating and bizarre because you find where they fail. Sure, you can maintain consciousness standing still or running, but how about being hurtled through the atmosphere at 1,000 miles per hour?

So NASA came up with answers. The human body could take 45 Gs for about 0.044 seconds without being debilitated. You could build a curve of G-force and time and figure out the body's limits, when it lost control.

But Clynes was never interested solely in helping the body maintain stasis. His work was more expansive and concentrated on the relationship between the brain and the world. Threaded through his career, Clynes has wanted to allow humans to communicate without words. In art and in science, he sought ways to escape the messiness and ambiguity of language.

Born in Vienna in 1925, Clynes was a lifelong classical musician. Through his violin, he found that he didn't need to talk to transmit and receive emotion. "Music dispenses with the words entirely with good reason. It's richer than the words and more definite," Clynes said. "Music is not vague as some people think, the more precisely you phrase the music, the more clear is the meaning.... That is the emotional language of music."

Perhaps that's why Clynes got into the study of recording the brain's electrical impulses. He sought a more definite way of knowing the mind. Early electroencephalographs could record the brain, but we couldn't make much sense of it. The brain turned out to be very noisy. When you shined a light at someone or gave them a little electrical shock, it was hard to tell what effect that actually had in their neurons.

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So, Clynes created a machine called the Computer of Average Transients. It was a kind of noise canceling machine.

"It was a way of finding the needle in the haystack," he said. "Let's say you had a light stimulus of a certain color and you wanted to see the influence of looking at that color had on the electrical activity of the brain. You presented the color a few times and averaged the result."

We can think of Clynes' work with the C.A.T. as the first step on the way to the Cyborg. If you could figure out stimulus in, reaction out -- you could develop a functioning communication system without truly knowing the inner workings of the brain's machinery.

The study of what we now know as "evoked potentials" began with the C.A.T. And it was used by thousands of researchers in different fields. "For example, hearing was tested that way to see if people were deaf," Clynes recalled. "It was the most effective way of doing that without having to ask someone."

Because asking someone was imprecise. Words were narrow tubes through which we tried to squeeze too much, everything.

"Wittgenstein, the German philosopher, said we are bewitched by words -- hexed, as he put it in German -- by words," Clynes said during our conversation. "Even though we don't know what we're saying half the time."

The same might have been true with the brain's messy firing, but the C.A.T. machine could average them to find which half of the electrical impulses were noise. Words have no averages. And yet words are the way we share information. They are how we know each other and the world. We can't escape them.

Clynes, though, keeps trying. In our conversation, he related a new idea he had that would allow us to use our brains to directly interact with machines and the world.

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All of the movements we consciously control are tied into the brain by neural feedback. When you move your finger, your muscles send a response to your brain that says, "Yup, moved my finger," Clynes said.

"That's true of all the standard movements except for one. What is that one?" he asked, pausing for effect. "The control of the lens in our eyes. All we have to do is think of a certain thing we want to see clearly at a distance or close by and automatically the muscles that adjust the curvature of the lens respond to this thought, and there is no feedback. There is no feedback. You have no knowledge of what your lens did. You know what you see of course, but that's different. There is no muscular feedback from those muscles that activate the curvature of the lens."

Clynes grew more excited.

"The lens is not in any way part of the body except that it happens to be there. In fact, it has no normal blood supply. It does have liquid surrounding it, but there is no blood supply because if you had blood going through the lens, you wouldn't see too well," he explained. "Nature has taken care of it. The biological control and invention of the lens is a beautiful and fantastic thing."

The lens, basically, is already a cyborg implant we all have and can control precisely without the kinesthetic feedback we get from the rest of our body. Clynes believes that it is the perfect way to control objects with our brains. If we could tap the system that controls the lens to control something else, it would be "the nearest thing to telekinesis," as Clynes put it.

Finally, words would no longer be the only way we transduce our electrical impulses for outside consumption. We would have a new means to access ourselves, a language (like music) without syllables or phonemes.

All of which makes it that much more amazing that we remember Clynes for a word. After a weekend of pondering his paper with Kline, he settled on cyborg, and sounding it out with Kline.

"Kline said, "Oh, this sounds kind of interesting, he said, but it also sounds like a town in Denmark," Clynes recalled. "I said, 'You're right, but what do you think anyway?'"

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Images: 1. Alexis Madrigal, photo collage from NASA art; 2. NASA. John Glenn on Friendship 7; 3. Spike and wave graph from 1949 paper, "Observations on the Wave and Spike Complex in the Electro-Encephalogram." PubMed Central; 4. A cross-section from a removed eye. National Museum of Health and Medicine; 5. Manfred Clynes, tripled.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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