Cyborgs and Androids and Robots, oh my!

I’m proofreading Frostburn before it goes out for Kate to do a professional job on it, and these things need a break to be taken, so…

Late last night YouTube threw me a recommend which piqued my interest. I should know better: anyone who says they’re going to analyse something is generally going to take something you like, dissect it in what they think is a detailed manner, and bore you to death with it. With AnimeEveryday’s Ghost in the Shell – Film Analysis, I instead got frustration and irritation. Partially it’s because he insisted on calling the Major by her first name throughout and then, I’m fairly sure, mispronouncing it, but mostly it was down to the fact that a lot of his assertions were based on a profound lack of knowledge of the (fictional) technology. I gave up before the end. (His analysis of the Arise series is, in my opinion, flawed as well, but for different reasons.)

However, this got me thinking about cyborgs and androids and such, and I decided to explore both the GitS view of things and mine. As a result, I learned more about GitS cyberbrains, which was interesting and annoying. It’s a prime example of why you should avoid looking under the covers because the cybernetics in GitS makes little to no sense. It’s a little like another classic sci-fi piece, Neuromancer: Gibson more or less created what we think the VR representation of the internet will be like, and he did such a great, evocative job because he hadn’t got a clue about computers. It’s apparent that something similar is working with GitS, except with electronics, computers, and neurology.

It doesn’t help that the same term is used for a range of totally dissimilar technologies: cyberbrain. All the GitS characters, and most humans in that world, have a cyberbrain, but the term is misleading. If you take the likes of Aramaki and Togusa, the two characters with the least cybernetics, what they have are cerebral implants: their brains are basically natural with implanted electronics allowing them to access communications and external memory storage. Up at the top end, Kusanagi and Batou, we have full ‘cyborgs’ with “up to 97.5% of their brain replaced with electronics.” That’s still a cyberbrain. Somewhere in the middle, maybe Ishikawa, there is extensive electronic augmentation with far more natural brain left intact.

I’ve been ignoring various comments in various parts of GitS for ages about the amount of brain replacement in Kusanagi. I used the word ‘cyborg’ in quotes above because, with the amount of her brain which appears to be electronic, calling her a cyborg is kind of silly. Another thing GitS does is play fast and loose with what a cyborg is. Cyborgs are a combination of organic and inorganic components. You can argue over the details, but if your brain is 97.5% machine, calling yourself a cyborg is kind of lame. Those organic bits are doing nothing. This is where the failure to understand neurology comes in. 2.5% of your brain is not going to contain your consciousness. It probably has no useful function because your brain is a huge, complex, interconnected machine. 2.5% of that is a symbol. Sentimentality. Kusanagi is right to question her nature, because it doesn’t make sense.

I suspect that the full-on cyberbrain is really supposed to be like Aneka’s brain. Kusanagi’s cyberbrain is a hardware and software emulation of the brain she (may have once) had. I’m not sure why there’s the continued desire to keep some organic component in the system. This may be a Japanese cultural thing I don’t understand. If Kusanagi was entirely synthetic, I don’t believe that would take away from the integral dilemma facing her. In fact, I think it would add to it.

The other annoyance was the use of ‘cyborg’ for things which aren’t. The Puppet Master is described as being a cyborg because he takes a cyborg body. Well, no, he’s not a cyborg because he has no organic components. He’s an android (or gynoid, since it’s a female shell). He has a cybernetic body, because cybernetics is different from ‘cyborg.’ This apparent failure to understand the technology irked me.

So, for your edification, I present an explanation of how I use various terms. These are mostly from Fox Meridian’s world, where the terminology is pretty well developed.

  • Android: A humanoid robot. In Fox’s world, this generally means a male form, but can be used generically, and is used for ungendered models.
  • Bioframe: Currently theoretical, a bioframe is a bioroid with a computer for a brain, hence the organic equivalent of a cyberframe.
  • Bioroid: Not a robot, but an artificially created life form. Again, currently theoretical.
  • Borg: Street slang for a cyborg, and yes, it was derived from Star Trek.
  • Cyberframe: Purely in-world jargon, a cyberframe is any kind of device which can have an infomorph loaded onto it as the operator, or be remotely operated. Technically, computer implants and wearables are cyberframes, and so are things like servers, handhelds, and laptops. Even the humble Q-bug is a cyberframe if it has a powerful enough on-board computer.
  • Cyborg: A human with mechanical parts either replacing or augmenting their natural ones. In Fox’s world, people with computer implants are not generally considered cyborg’s, though they technically are.
  • Droid: In Fox’s world, this is the preferred generic term for and android/gynoid where the sex is unknown, or you’re speaking of a mixed gender group.
  • Frame: Shortened from cyberframe.
  • Gynoid: A female form android. (Interestingly, gynoid is a recent invention. The original term was ‘fembot.’ Yes, like in Austin Powers. And that’s in the real world!)
  • Infomorph: A life form composed of data and software. Includes AIs, but also some forms of computer virus, and perhaps some other things.
  • Robot: The absolutely generic term for any mechanical, self-motivated machine. In Fox’s world, it’s also jargon for machines installed with exclusive operating software such that they can’t be operated by an infomorph.

My definitions are closer to (if not the same as) the real-world jargon terms. The ones I haven’t made up anyway. I think being clear about this and knowing where the terminology comes from makes things easier. For one thing, it means you’re not worrying about what on Earth the writer was thinking when they came up with a plot idea. I just hope no one ever does a psychological analysis of my stuff: I might cry.


10 responses to “Cyborgs and Androids and Robots, oh my!

  1. Soemhow, reading this makes me want to install Deus Ex again.

  2. I was confused for a long time just how much of the Major was still organic. My impression was that originally she still had an organic brain when she was first cyberized.

    In the course of thing on GiTS I think they revised things to make her “ghost” an emulation. Much like Evangelion has been revised.

    Your explanations certainly make the most sense of things in GiTS so far.

    GiTS has already dealt with cloning ghosts from a master copy so there really should be a kind of immortality in that universe, if you can afford it.

    • In the GitSverse, ghost dubbing works, but eventually kills the host, so it’s not total immortality. OTOH, they seem to work their way around that a fair bit when it’s needed.

  3. > I’m not sure why there’s the continued desire to keep some organic component in the system.

    Well, there is this pesky ghost / soul. I guess it can only be connected to a body via this small part of the brain.
    At least that was my theory until they started uploading their ghost into tanks and the internet.

    • I think they suffer a little from not having consistent tech. I usually try to avoid that, because I’m a pedant. 🙂 I may not always succeed.

  4. The first time I saw GiTS was with a Japanese friend, and she pointed out alot of misleading and outright mistakes of the English subtitles. This was more than 15 years ago so I dont remember if some of those mistakes were in relation to the tech terms or not. So, I have to wonder how much of the tech and terminology you find annoying are simply due to being lost in translation, both linguistic and cultural?

    I do agree however, in general terms, that the misuse of technological terminology or outright lack of understanding in alot of scifi can really kill a story or cause irritation. Ill even admit to being a little irritated by youre use of robot to describe Aneke at first, since I thought android/gynoid would have been the correct term. Changed my mind after thinking on it more however, since I get the impression she considers herself to be, in essence, piloting a mechanical body rather than being that body. Also, her mind may be an emulation, buts its still organic in origin not artificial in origin as an android/gynoid would be to my understanding. So really, WTF would be the correct term, if there even is one for that situation?

    Oh, and as far as Neuromacer goes….”3 MB of hot RAM”. I first read it around 1995, and laughed my ass off over that.

    • I went and checked over the explanations of the GitS tech in Wikipedia. There’s quite an extensive entry. I don’t think it’s translation issues.
      As for Aneka… Well, I disliked using the term ‘gynoid’ back then. The term was invented out of a politically correct notion that ‘android’ is a masculine term, which it isn’t. I use it in Fox’s universe because it’s far closer to ours and gynoid has become the word to use for human-female-form robots.
      And, yes, fiction has consistently failed to adequately predict technology. It’s not surprising Neuromancer falls short.

  5. If you’re still on an anime trip you should look at Kaiba. Heck, even if you aren’t, it’s worth watching – plays with similar themes, but is even more focused on the emotional aspects (and in that way very typical for Japanese stories; can’t say I can think about a single one that particularly cares about technological details).
    It’s a pretty darn tragic dystopia.

  6. I thought the same thing, especially after seeing the visual style, but, well. It was one of those really rare cases where the surprise was a positive one 😉

    But, sure, who knows.

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