Mark Grossman: What is Bionics?


3 April 2014


A simple internet search brought many results. But the first was a definition of bionics: “having artificial body parts, [especially] electromechanical ones.”

The term bionic is most often used in medicine to mean the replacement or improvement of human organs or other body parts with mechanical imitations. Bionic imitations are designed “to work” like the original part or even better. This is different from prosthetic replacements, which are only designed to “look like” the missing organ or body part. However, one does not have to exclude the other. A “working” bionic replacement can also be prosthetic or “look like” the missing body part or organ.

Many researchers in the field of robotics are working on many different projects. And each group of researchers knows what they are doing. But this field has, and continues, to develop so quickly that there is a lot of actual confusion about words: what to call what you are doing. And the word bionic is an example of change and confusion.

In the late 1950’s, a psychiatrist and engineer named Jack E. Steele invented the term bionic. But his “bionic” had a much broader meaning than the term has today. Steele used the term to describe the imitation of nature, natural processes, and living organisms in the design of mechanical systems – as solutions “to engineering problems.”

And the definition might be the same, today, if a science fiction writer named Martin Caidin hadn’t used the term in his novel, Cyborg. Again, the definition of the word bionic might not have been affected if the novel had been unpopular.   Not only was Cyborg popular, but it was adapted into the television show, The Six Million Dollar Man.  I’d guess the show’s developers thought the word “bionic” sounded cool, but the word “cyborg” sounded creepy. The rest is not only TV history, but narrowed the meaning of the word bionics to focus on the design of functional, mechanic organ replacements and body parts.

Maybe the spectacular success of the television show and a spin off or two, made the word bionic just too trendy for the technological community. “Bionic,” with its original meaning, disappeared from technical literature in favor of Otto Schmitt’s term, “biomemetric” meaning the solution of engineering problems by imitating nature in the design of mechanical devices. Then, Janine Benyus popularized the term, “biomimicry” in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

Technically, the rather long phrase, “bionical creativity engineering” still retains the broad meaning of the original term bionics.   But you’re more likely to hear the terms biomemetric or biomimicry when robotic marvels like Boston Dynamics’ “Big Dog” or UVD’s Robo-Raven are discussed.

A final note on word usage. Bionics is the study of incorporating mechanical organs and body parts into living human beings. When you actually incorporate the mechanical organ or body part, you have something called a cyborg. To take some of the creepiness out of the name cyborg, remember that a heart patient with a pacemaker is, technically, a cyborg. A kidney patient, actually using a dialysis machine to assist kidney function, is a cyborg, as long as they are connected to the machine.