WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
You think that it’s inevitable that the machines will come for your job, but as we get closer to being able to upload knowledge to our brains “Matrix” style, the tables could be about to turn.
Being a spy, or a solider for that matter, isn’t easy apparently – at least that’s according to DARPA, the US defence research agency. You have to immerse yourself in new, hostile situations, assess intel, speak foreign languages and use all manner of complicated equipment and gadgets, like invisible Aston Martins, and 3D printed hand grenade launchers… and learning all of this takes a lot of specialised training.
Now, as a result DARPA, the mad scientists of the defence world, want to find new ways to help people learn these vital skills quicker, even if they have to zap them to do it – something that the American Olympic Team were getting used to getting used to ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Imagine, for example, being able to upload knowledge into your brain Matrix style. How cool would that be? Ah, if only that was possible… oh yes, sorry, I forgot it is. We achieved that last year… I did tell you you know. Keep up.
Anyway, now that DARPA’s getting involved things are getting serious and, in an age that’s going to be fuelled by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robo-automation, where we all might find ourselves having to re-train every other week to find new jobs the machines can’t do, this is hopefully going to be a good thing. A very good thing indeed.
To explore the possibilities DARPA has just awarded over $50 million in funding to eight teams looking into how electrical stimulation of the human nervous system can help facilitate, and more importantly, accelerate, learning.
The four year program, dubbed the Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) project, aims to identify new neuro-stimulation methods that can help activate a phenomenon known as synaptic plasticity, in short, the ability of synapses to strengthen or weaken their connections with each other, something known as the Jennifer Aniston Effect, yes really – I’m not making this up you know, how dare you think that – and by doing so create new memories and, down the line even experiences.
“The Defence Department operates in a complex, interconnected world in which human skills such as communication and analysis are vital, and the Department has long pushed the frontiers of training to maximise those skills,” says bioengineer Doug Weber, who manages the TNT program.
“DARPA’s goal with TNT is to further enhance the most effective existing training methods so the men and women of our Armed Forces can operate at their full potential.”
And DARPA has a pretty specific target for that “full potential” too, wanting to see a 30 percent improvement in learning rates over existing training by the time the four year program is up.
Whether that can be achieved though remains to be seen, but the hope is that by delivering electrical pulses to the nervous system researchers can figure out how to release certain key neuro-chemicals to modulate neural connections in the brain that could have an impact on synaptic plasticity.
“Tweaking the brain like this can influence cognitive state – how awake you are, or how much attention you’re paying to something you’re viewing or performing,” said Weber.
Across the eight teams involved in the program, researchers will be conducting a range of experiments on both animals and human volunteers, looking at how different nerves may end up affecting learning prospects.
One team, for example, from Arizona State University is investigating how neuro-stimulation could affect surveillance, reconnaissance, and marksmanship skills, while researchers from John Hopkins University are investigating the effects on language learning.
Meanwhile, at the University of Central Florida (UCF), scientists will study how stimulation of the Vagus Nerve, which connects the brain and the gut, impacts our perception, decision making and spatial navigation.
“There are clinical applications of course, but very little understanding of how synaptic plasticity works,” says Jennifer Bizon, a neuroscientist at UCF, “we are going to do the systematic science to understand how stimulation actually drives brain circuits and, ultimately, how to maximise the use of this approach to enhance cognition.”
While previous DARPA brain research projects have mostly looked at how to restore lost functions, such as restoring memory in people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, the TNT program is focused purely on advancing people’s natural capabilities, and if the project’s successful, which I think it will be, then it’s likely that soldiers and spies won’t be the only beneficiaries.
“You can envision that if we could come up with a kind of way to non-invasively control brain chemistry with high fidelity, that there’s a lot of human conditions we could improve,” says Justin Williams, a biomedical engineer from the University of Wisconsin Madison, citing the examples of tackling learning disabilities in children, and memory disorders in adults. Eventually the benefits will also be offered to enlisted soldiers – perhaps as an optional neuro-stimulation component at boot camp training.
“There are elite performers who are eager for anything and everything that would give them an additional boost or benefit,” says Weber, “and for these individuals, I think it would be fantastic if we can help.”
As for now though you’ll just have to imagine what it will be like to learn a new skill, or gain a new experience instantly – albeit with a zap. But as I keep telling the people I bore during my presentations imagine the effect that this, as well as humanity’s ability to plug directly into AI, or our own Hive Mind Network (HNT) – yes, I too can make up my own acronyms, please adopt it – will have on your children, and their career prospects in a world rife with automation and intelligent machines that can all connect to their own hive minds.
And all of this is just the beginning, in time we’ll undoubtedly see a whole new industry spring up that could offer you the opportunity to upload new experiences to your brain – Instant Recall style. Bring it on AI you’re about to meet your match, my five year old is coming for you… be afraid, be very afraid.