Wetware

By Maeve Maddox

Computer-age coinages don’t usually strike me as “creepy,” but this one does.

Formed on the model of software and hardware, wetware begins to soar into prominence on the Ngram Viewer in 1979. Both the OED and Merriam-Webster provide definitions of this new term.

OED
wetware noun: Chemical materials organized so as to perform arithmetic or logical operations; brain substance, as having this ability.

M-W
wetware noun: The human brain or a human being considered especially with respect to human logical and computational capabilities.

Apparently the invention and continuing development of artificial intelligence (AI) has created the need for a retronym for human.

In I, Robot, written between 1940 and 1950, Asimov referred to the brain of a robot as a “positronic brain.” In the dystopia of Terminator (1984), an intelligent computer is called “Neural Net CPU.” In the 2015 film Ex Machina, a substance made of a gel that causes artificial neural connections to form is called wetware.

Here are examples of the usage of wetware I found on the Web:

[Marleen Stikker] was director of multimedia art festival Zomerfestijn Amsterdam in 1990 and 1991 and organiser of the Wetware Conference (on hardware, software and physical interaction).

Integrated IT & Wetware/Software Solutions [headline on site of company offering digital services]

Many, many teams just abandon this impossible wetware task and use each solution in isolation. [This is a consultant’s website. In the context, wetware seems to mean the aspect of online selling that involves human beings called “web customers” and “mobile customers” who are part of the “wetware task.”]

The term wetware in its turn is spawning new meanings for the adjective wet. Dean Koontz uses (and defines) the expression “wet intelligence” in the following exchange between characters who are examining an alien creature:

“Linked up, maybe these hundreds of millions of nanocomputers functioned as this creature’s brain or at least as the largest part of its brain, assuming there was also some wet intelligence in it.”

“Wet intelligence?”

“Biological brain matter.”

At first I thought that the term “wet signature” had a similar meaning, but several readers have informed me that the wetness of this term refers to ink and not to gray matter. For example:

DocuSign is capable of keeping the entire transaction in the cloud. There are, however, rare occasions when a wet signature is necessary.

Related post:
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4 Responses to “Wetware”

  • Sean

    Are you sure that “wetware” forms part of the ancestry of “wet signature”? My understanding is that the “wet” of “wet signature” comes from the wet ink that is applied physically (instead of the antiseptic digital signatures) rather that referring to brain matter.

  • Maeve

    Sean,
    Your explanation is much more pleasant—and believable— than my assumption about “wet signature.” Yes, ink is a much better image.

  • Frank Butler

    I had a boss years ago that used the term “carbon-based unit” in a similar vein (as opposed to “silicon-based unit”) – for example, “There’s nothing wrong with the computer or programming, the problem is with the carbon-based unit who typed in the wrong data.” Also, Scott Adams (of “Dilbert” fame) coined the term “Moist Robot” to express the concept that human behavior can be explained mostly by programming in the brain rather than free will – for a recent example, refer to http://blog.dilbert.com/post/130338537981/the-moist-robot-ethical-code.

  • venqax

    @Sean: I think you are correct. “Wet signature” is literal (mostly) as opposed to figurative when referring to an “original” signature. Or, as it is often and rather nonsensically called, “the original copy.”

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