Wetware refers to both neuron-based computing systems found in many common systems and to any real or theoretical computing devices which directly interact with said neural nets. Note that this term does not include computing devices which are interacted with via physical systems, such as keyboards or visual displays; it refers specifically to devices which are implanted directly into the body and can be accessed purely through mental interfaces.
The basic idea is that someone with wetware would have a device implanted in their body (the most obvious place being the head, after removing some of that redundant gray matter), which would, from the perspective of the user, feel "just like" their brain but is in some way better. Commonly postulated abilities of wetware include:
- Memory: There are numerous variations on this. One might be a perfect memory for events (anything that is seen/heard is recorded to permanent storage), or have 'memory' of events that the user does not directly know of. For example, if asked about some obscure fact, a wetware user might 'think' about it for a second (while their wetware did a search of local and/or remote databases), and then they 'remember' the answer.
- Processing Speed: This covers a huge amount of ground; anything from being able to solve math problems very quickly to being able to shoot an short range weapon like a MP5 at large distances or while moving quickly by computing all the relevant factors, such as wind, temperature, and relative movement of yourself and your target into how you fire the gun. This ties in with the next ability.
- Physical Control: Since currently your brain controls your body, presumably it would be possible for wetware to do the same. Thus, given the proper software, a wetware user would be able to anything that their body is physically capable of. A lot of martial arts training is not about physical power, but rather training your mind to the point where you can do things automatically, without having to think about every movement. So very Matrixey.
- External Network Access: This is the most obvious and in some ways the least interesting ability a wetware user might gain. This would let someone communicate with the outside world without any external equipment. Essentially, a high-bandwidth radio transmitter/receiver inside your skull.
There are downsides to wetware, too. Consider that getting wetware involves installing a powerful, network connected computer which can interact directly with your brain. The risks here are substantially high, and with the currently known state of the art in computer security it is not possible to provide a strong level of assurance that your brain will not end up being controlled by someone else. This outside party may not have your best interests at heart.
As of the time of this writeup, relatively little progress has been made in this domain. It is extensively featured in a large amount of futuristic science fiction, and while some research has been done, our knowledge of the human brain is currently too limited to provide anything approaching what is described in this writeup.
The best fictional representations of wetware that I know of are in:
but it is an extremely common theme in some genres, particularly cyberpunk. If anyone knows of other really good descriptions of wetware in any form of media, please /msg me.
Addendum: After this writeup was initially posted, rootbeer277 /msg'ed me to say that he had never heard wetware used to refer to implants before, just for purely organic materials. Curious about this, I consulted The Source of All Knowledge in search of people using wetware to refer to implants, and did find some, but not many (around a thousand, compared to 90,000 hits for just 'wetware'). Perhaps using wetware to refer to implants is more common among fans of cyberpunk novels than among general computer science folk. I've heard several friends and coworkers state that they want wetware, and since (presumably) they already have some sort of rudimentary nervous system, what they meant by this was they want what is described in this writeup.
It is my assertion that while wetware usually refers to naturally occurring organic systems, the term really encompasses both meanings. People talk about hacking wetware when they are discussing social engineering or media manipulation. It's exactly the same process with computerized implants as with organic brains, except instead of manipulating someone by taking advantage of structures built into the target's consciousness by evolution, society, and personal history, the structures built into the computerized system are taken advantage of. It is just like the wetware you've already got, but Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.