What Is Wetware in Computing and Biology?

Wetware includes bionic eyes and mind-control devices

Wetwear, which stands for wet software, has come to mean a few different things over the years, but it usually refers to the mixture of software, hardware, and biology.

The word originally referred to the association between software code and genetic code, where an organism's DNA, which is physically wet, resembles software instructions.

In other words, wetware references the software that belongs to a living organism—the instructions contained within its DNA, similar to how the instructions behind a computer program are called its software or firmware.

Computer hardware can be contrasted with a human’s "hardware" like the brain and nervous system, and software can refer to our thoughts or DNA instructions. This is why wetware is commonly associated with devices that interact or merge with biological material, such as thought-controlled devices, brain-harnessed super devices, and biological engineering.

Photo of a man's body with electronics overlaid on him
Liam Norris / Getty Images

Terms like liveware, meatware, and biohacking refer to the same idea behind wetware.

How Is Wetware Used?

Similar to how augmented reality aims to merge the physical and virtual realms into one space, so too does wetware attempt to merge or closely associate software-based elements with physical biology.

There are many potential applications for wetware devices, but the primary focus seems to be in the area of health, and it might involve anything from a wearable that connects to the body from the outside to an embeddable that’s positioned under the skin.

A device can be considered wetware if it uses special software to connect to and read your biological outputs, one example being EMOTIV Insight, which reads brain waves through a wireless headset that sends results back to your phone or computer. It measures relaxation, stress, focus, excitement, engagement, and interest, and then explains the results to you and identifies what you can do to improve those areas.

Some wetware devices aim not to simply monitor but to actually improve the human experience, which might involve a device that simply uses the mind to control other devices or computer programs.

A wearable or implantable device might form a brain-computer connection to do something like move artificial limbs when the user doesn’t have biological control over them. The neural headset can “listen” for an action from the brain and then execute it through specially designed hardware.

Devices that can edit genes are another example of wetware, where the software or hardware physically changes the organism to remove existing infections, prevent diseases, or even potentially add new features or capabilities to the very DNA. SynBio, or synthetic biology, is another term related to this area of research.

Even DNA itself can be used as a storage device like a hard drive, holding as much as 215 petabytes in just a single gram.

Another practical use for human-connected software or hardware might be an exoskeleton suit that can repeat common laborious tasks like lifting heavy objects. The device itself is clearly hardware, but behind the scenes needs to be software that mimics or monitors the user’s biology to closely understand what to do.

Some other examples of wetware include embeddable contactless payment systems or ID cards that relay information wirelessly through the skin, bionic eyes that stimulate vision, and remote-operated drug delivery devices that doctors can use to control doses of medicine.

More Information on Wetware

Wetware is sometimes used to describe man-made objects that closely resemble biological organisms, such as how a plane resembles a bird or how a nanobot might have its fundamental features taken from the human cell or bacteria.

Wetware is also sometimes used to refer to software or hardware that can be manipulated by gestures, especially ones that come from a biological implant. Motion sensing devices like Microsoft’s Kinect might then be considered wetware, but that's a bit of a stretch.

Given the above definition of wetware, it can also be evolved into referring to any of the people involved with dealing with software, so software developers, IT workers, and even end-users might be called wetware.

Wetware might also be used to mean human-error: “The program passed our tests without any issues, so it must have been a wetware problem.” This can even be tied back to the meaning above. Instead of the app’s software causing the issue, it was the user or developer that contributed to the problem—his software, or wetware, is to blame.

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