IM this article to a friend!

January 16, 2004

Is it Possible to Download Knowledge into the Brain?

From: Betterhumans, Canada - Jan 16, 2004

Mind-machine interfaces will be available in the near future, and several methods hold promise for implanting information

Answered by Peter Passaro

Is it likely that one day we will be able to download vast amounts of knowledge directly to our brain? So as to cut the lengthy process of learning everything from scratch? Instead of paying to go to university we could pay to get a "knowledge implant" and perhaps be able to obtain many lifetimes worth of knowledge and expertise in various fields at a young age.

Ian Degrussa Esperance, Australia

There is little doubt that direct brain-machine interfaces will be available in the very near future. Right now, the state of the art for interfacing to the primate brain is a few hundred implanted recording electrodes in the part of the brain that outputs motor commands (the signals that control your muscles). The emphasis is on recording, because downloading knowledge involves stimulation,which in itself is a whole different ball game, and very few people have even considered what would be necessary to put information into the human brain.

This said, here are a few ideas on how you could do it.

The first thing to do would be to build an implant that could "speak" the same language as the brain. You would then need to figure out how to connect it to the right tissue so that the tissue would correctly accept the information. The easiest way to do this would be to go through the same pathways the brain uses to take in other information—the sensory systems. This is already being done for the auditory system with cochlear implants and is close to reality for the visual system with retinal or visual cortex implants. Such an interface would give you direct, instantaneous access to information—and it would be the ultimate virtual reality system, a la The Matrix—but it would not necessarily give you knowledge. I see this type of system being available in a fairly short timeframe, say 20 years or so.

Sensory input is fairly simple as far as nervous system signaling goes, though, and when it comes to inserting knowledge we're talking about full on restructuring or input of memory. I see two possibilities of how you could achieve this.

The first is to use the sensory input implants mentioned above and force the brain into some accelerated learning state that would repattern neural connections and fool the brain into thinking it had experienced learning the information you wanted. There are some experts who believe something like this is going on during dreaming. I believe this is what they were trying to depict in The Matrix, but the timescale at which they did it in the film was pretty extreme. I could see a slower version of this as a possibility as a few labs are already working on how to enhance what neuroscientists call "plasticity"—changes in the function or shape of a neuronal network.

The second is to build an implant that contained the experiences you wanted to know and have the information be directly accessible to the brain. As memories are likely not stored in just a single location in the brain, this would probably require a device that had small implants scattered over the entire surface of the cortex. The engineering complexity required for such a device is (no pun intended) truly mind boggling. As I am fond of pointing out to people, the human brain is the most complex physical system we know of, and you would have to understand its operation in great detail to build such a device.

A third more extreme possibility is using mature nanotechnology to go in and physically restructure the neuronal networks so that they represented the memories you wanted. If you could do this, though, you would probably have a truly complete understanding of the operation of human intelligence and how to build one from scratch, which would make the reason for doing something like this in the first place moot since you could put intelligence into any substrate that you wanted.

Peter Passaro is a graduate student researcher in the Laboratory for Neuroengineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Copyright © 2002-2004 Betterhumans