Cyborg is apparently a contraction of "cybernetic organism" (see Cybernetics). The basic idea of a cyborg is that of a biological organism whose physiology has been technologically augmented by chemical or mechanical means. It was originally conceived of as a scientific project to artificially adapt human beings for life in new environments, in particular for space travel. The notion of bio-mechanical and human-machine hybrids has also become a popular theme in science fiction and in cultural studies.

The term "Cyborg" was coined by Manfred Clynes in 1960. Clynes was a neuroscientist working at Rockland State Hospital and studying the physiology of astronauts for NASA. He defined the cyborg as incorporating artificial autonomous homeostatic controls over organic processes within an organism (Clynes and Kline 1960, p.27). Being autonomous meant that these new controls did not require the attention of the organism to regulate vital biological functions. While it is the idea of putting mechanical devices inside humans that makes cyborgs so striking, it is the concept of homeostatic regulation which is scientifically significant.

The concept of "homeostasis" comes from the work of the physiologist Walter Cannon (1932). It was further developed in cybernetics (Wiener 1948, see Cybernetics (Wiener)) to explain the mechanisms of self-regulating processes which are controlled by negative feedback. While various sorts of tools and prosthetic devices, such as bicycles, scuba-gear and eye-glasses, transform or extend the natural abilities of the human, they do not necessarily involve any feedback control mechanisms. Other prosthetics, such as pacemakers which regulate heart-rate, are integrated into the natural feedback mechanisms of the organism, and are thus cyborg augmentations.

The use of the term "cyborg" spread quickly, and soon NASA's Biotechnology and Human Research division funded a "Cyborg Program" to investigate the use of available bio-chemical and medical knowledge to alter human astronauts for extended stays in space (Driscoll 1963). Ultimately, no humans are known to have been radically altered, though many military pilots were given chemical stimulants prior to combat missions as a result of this research.

A closely related field of scientific research called "Bionics" was conceived in 1958 by U.S. Air Force flight surgeon and psychiatrist Major Jack Steele (1960). The idea behind bionics was to integrate biology and engineering. Specifically, the hopes of the field were to discover how nature had solved various engineering problems through millions of years of evolution, to formalize those solutions mathematically, and to transfer nature's technologies to human artifacts. Examples of this process include copying the shape of a bird's wings to achieve human flight, copying the properties of the human inner ear to build audio filters and signal processors, and building computational models of cognitive processes.

Another closely related scientific concept is that of the cybernetically regulated super-organism. This notion derives from work in entomology by E. O. Wilson (1971). Wilson discovered how ant colonies self-regulate the processes of food collection and nest defense through the use of chemical pheromones to issue orders to workers and transmit information about food location and intruders. The theory of the super-organism is that the activities of individuals are so tightly organized that the entire colony acts as single organism, rather than as a mere collection of individuals. This kind of colony behavior can be observed in such insects as ants, bees, wasps and termites, and even in mammalian naked mole-rats. This idea has been used widely in computer science in the design of Distributed Computing and multi-agent systems (see Agent).

Examples of cyborgs appeared in science fiction before the term was given a scientific definition, such as the "robots" of the 1923 play by the Brothers Capek, which were constructed from artificially grown biological tissues. But their place in science fiction was firmly established by the 1972 novel Cyborg, whose author, Martin Caidin, had been a pilot and flight surgeon. The novel is about a NASA test pilot who is severely injured in a crash and reconstructed with "bionic limbs" by surgeons and engineers. This novel was also the basis of the popular U.S. television shows The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. Hollywood has done much to further popularize the cyborgs of science fiction. Most notably are the films Terminator, Robocop, and Star Trek's "Borg."

In the humanities, cultural studies has also taken a keen interest in the concept of the cyborg (Haraway 1985, Gray 1995). Of particular interest is the investigation of how communication and control technologies transform the social and political subjectivity of individuals, and how alterations of human biology and transgressions of the human body by technology changes human experience and identity.

More than any other technology, genetic engineering and the alteration of the human genome holds out the promise of radical transformations in human capacities and physiology. This technology conforms closely to Clynes' (1965) notion of "participant evolution," whereby humans are to take control over their own evolutionary destiny. The development and availability of such powerful technologies raises many questions of the moral responsibilities of scientists and society toward individuals and future generations.

by Peter M. Asaro

For Further Research

Dyson, George B. Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence. New York, NY: Addison Wesley, 1997.

Gray, Chris Hables (editor). The Cyborg Handbook. New York, NY: Routledge, 1995.

Halacy, Daniel S. Bionics: The Science of "Living Machines." New York, NY: Holiday House, 1965.

Halacy, Daniel S. Cyborg: Evolution of the Superman. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1965.


The Bionic Woman. Universal Pictures, ABC Television, 1975-8.

Caidin, Martin. Cyborg. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1970.

Cannon, Walter B. The Wisdom of the Body, New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 1932.

Capek, The Brothers (Karel and Josef). R. U. R. (Russom's Universal Robots). A Play in Three Acts and an Epilogue. Translated from Czech version of 1923 by P. Selver. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Clynes, Manfred E., and Nathan S. Kline. "Cyborgs and Space," Astronautics (September, 1960): 27-31. Originally appeared as "Drugs, Space and Cybernetics," Proceedings of the Psychophysiological Aspects of Space Flight Symposium, Air Force School of Aviation Medicine, San Antonio, TX, May, 1960. New York, NY: Columbia University Press1960. Reprinted in The Cyborg Handbook, Edited by Chris Hables Gray, New York, NY: Routledge, 1995: 29-33.

Clynes, Manfred E. (1965). "Foreword." To Cyborg: Evolution of the Superman, Daniel S. Halacy, New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1965, 8.

Driscoll, Robert. W. Engineering Man for Space: The Cyborg Study, The Cyborg Program Final Report NASw-512, May 15, 1963, NASA (OART) Biotechnology and Human Research, Washington D.C., United Aircraft Corporate Systems Center: Farmingdale, CN. Reprinted in The Cyborg Handbook, Edited by Chris Hables Gray, New York, NY: Routledge, 1995: 75-81.

Haraway, Donna (1985). "Manifesto for cyborgs: science, technology and socialist feminism in the 1980's", Socialist Review 80: 65-108. Reprinted as "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, New York, NY: Routledge, 1991, pp. 149-181.

Robocop, Paul Verhoeven, Orion/MGM Pictures, 1987.

The Six Million Dollar Man. Universal Pictures, ABC Television, 1973-78.

Steele, J. E.(1960) "How Do We Get There?", Bionics Symposium: Living Prototypes--The Key to New Technology, September 13-15, 1960, WADD Technical Report 60-600, Wright Air Development Division, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH, pp. 488-489. Reprinted in The Cyborg Handbook, Edited by Chris Hables Gray, New York, NY: Routledge, 1995: 55-60.

Terminator, Scott Cameron, Hemdale/HBO, 1984.

Wilson, Edward Osborne. The Insect Societies. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Paris: Hermann and Co., Cambridge, MA: The Technology Press, and New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, 1948.