One of the most iconic sci-fi technologies from one of the iconic sci-fi films of all time, The Matrix, could become a reality after a recent scientific breakthrough. Scientists from California’s HRL Laboratories have developed a device which directly feeds information into a human brain. Initial results have led to optimism the ‘simulator’ will one day allow us to obtain new knowledge and learn new skills in much shorter amounts of time.
It’s being compared to fictitious technology from The Matrix, which sees the protagonist Neo instantly becoming a master of kung fu after the skill is ‘uploaded’ directly into his brain. Dr Matthew Phillips of HRL Laboratories explains:
“Our system is one of the first of its kind. It’s a brain stimulation system. It sounds kind of sci-fi, but there’s large scientific basis for the development of our system”.
“The specific task we were looking at was piloting an aircraft, which requires a synergy of both cognitive and motor performance. When you learn something, your brain physically changes. Connections are made and strengthened in a process called neuro-plasticity”.
“It turns out that certain functions of the brain, like speech and memory, are located in very specific regions of the brain, about the size of your pinky.”
The HRL Laboratories researchers captured the pattern of electric signals in the brain of a trained pilot while they controlled an aeroplane. Those same signals were then fed into the brains of novices learning to become pilots by training in a highly realistic flight simulator. It turned out that the learner pilots that wore electrode-embedded head caps that stimulated their brains with the same pattern of electric signals as those recorded in the brain of the experienced pilot, picked up their new skills with 33% more efficiency than a placebo group.
Those tests results have convinced the scientists that their research shows tangible evidence that the technique, further developed, could realistically be applied to improve learning in coming years. He believes things such as learning to drive, learning new languages and even studying for exams could all one day be made much more efficient by the technology.
“What our system does is it actually targets those changes to specific regions of the brain as you learn. The method itself is actually quite old. In fact, the ancient Egyptians 4000 years ago used electric fish to stimulate and reduce pain”.
“Even Ben Franklin applied currents to his head, but the rigorous, scientific investigation of these methods started in the early 2000s and we’re building on that research to target and personalise a stimulation in the most effective way possible.
“Your brain is going to be very different to my brain when we perform a task. What we found is … brain stimulation seems to be particularly effective at actually improving learning.”
The study will offer optimism to future generations that they may be able to acquire a broad range of news skills and knowledge without anything like the same amount of time and effort as is required through natural means today. However, with the technology very much still at an early research stage, it might not quite be time to cancel those Spanish, Tango or cooking classes. You’ll probably have to learn the old fashioned way for a while yet before Matrix-esque knowledge and skill uploads can bought in gift shops or ordered online!
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