Researchers Close to Matrix-Style Learning

9th January 2012

By Madison Ruppert

Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

As every week passes, the world becomes more like a science fiction film. Some of these developments are nothing short of disturbing, especially for people like me who are concerned with just how this technology will be used.

Yet there is also a bright side to these emerging technologies. Not all of these developments are negative and many could actually improve the lives of many people across the world and perhaps better all of humanity.

Unlike the ominous “threat assessment” technology which seems like it was ripped straight out of the pages of Philip K. Dick’s short story Minority Report, scientists recently published research that appears to be almost exactly like the technology seen in the popular science fiction film The Matrix.

No, this isn’t insects that burrow under your skin or robots that harvest energy from human beings, this is the ability to “learn high-performance tasks with little or no conscious effort,” according to the National Science Foundation.

I don’t know about you, but I would love to be able to pick up Mandarin Chinese without having to spend years in a classroom, and I doubt many people would argue that such an advancement would be unwelcome.

Early last month, research was published in the prominent journal Science which suggests that it very well might be possible to use emerging technology to learn such diverse tasks as playing a piano to hitting a curve ball.

This is much like in The Matrix when they need to learn how to fly a helicopter at a moment’s notice so they simply load up a program and – bam – they know how to perfectly pilot a helicopter.

Boston University, in the United States, along with ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, both conducted experiments which found that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology could be used to induce brain activity patterns which match a previously known target state.

This is done through the person’s visual cortex, and the decoded fMRI induces a state of brain activity which mirrors a known state which can improve performance on visual tasks.

While this sounds somewhat hard to grasp, it really isn’t once you understand it.

The subject’s brain patterns are modified by the fMRI to match the previously established patterns of someone like a high-performing athlete.

Another promising aspect of this research is that it can be used to modify or recuperate from an accident or debilitating disease.

At this stage this research is purely preliminary, but according to the National Science Foundation, “researchers say such possibilities may exist in the future.”

The key is that adult early visual areas of the brain are “plastic” enough to actually allow learning through visual perception.

When they speak of plastic, they do not mean it literally, but instead are speaking of neuroplasticity, a concept which describes the ability of the brain to change and adapt as need be.

Neuroscientists have discovered that images build up in a person’s brain in a gradual manner, first appearing simply as lines, then edges, shapes, color and motion in these early visual areas of the brain.

The brain then fills in more detail in order to make a clear picture appear of whatever object or objects the individual is observing.

Based on these findings, researchers studied the ability of the early visual areas to create improvements in visual performance and learning tasks.

Some previous research confirmed a correlation between improving visual performance and changes in early visual areas, while other researchers found correlations in higher visual and decision areas,” said Takeo Watanabe, director of Boston University’s Visual Science Laboratory.

However, none of these studies directly addressed the question of whether early visual areas are sufficiently plastic to cause visual perceptual learning.

That is, of course, until this most recent research emerged which displays a new learning approach which could create long-term improvement in the many tasks that require visual performance.

A post-doctoral fellow at Boston University named Kazuhisa Shibata designed a new method which uses decoded fMRI neurofeedback to create a specific brain activation pattern which corresponds to a pattern which is evoked by a specific visual feature in the brain region they are focusing on.

A crude example is if fMRI activity was used to monitor brain activity while someone played piano, then the resulting activity patterns were decoded and used to induce the same activity pattern in a different individual.

The researchers studied if repeating this activation pattern could actually improve the visual performance on that particular visual feature.

Boston University’s Watanabe developed the idea for the research project alongside the director of the Japanese ATR lab, Mitsuo Kawato, and an assistant in neuroscience at Massachusetts General Hospital named Yuka Sasaki.

Watanabe describes just how exciting and astounding this emerging technology is in saying, “The most surprising thing in this study is that mere inductions of neural activation patterns corresponding to a specific visual feature led to visual performance improvement on the visual feature, without presenting the feature or subjects’ awareness of what was to be learned.”

That’s right; you could actually improve your visual performance on a certain visual feature without even knowing it!

That is what Watanabe means when he mentions, “performance improvement … without presenting the feature or subjects’ awareness of what was to be learned.”

Watanabe makes this almost unbelievable finding even more clear in saying that they, “found that subjects were not aware of what was to be learned while behavioral data obtained before and after the neurofeedback training showed that subjects’ visual performance improved specifically for the target orientation, which was used in the neurofeedback training.”

The director of the ATR lab, Mitsuo Kawato, said that in principle, this technology could be used as “hypnosis or a type of automated learning,” while pointing out that at this point their research is only in the preliminary stages.

“In this study we confirmed the validity of our method only in visual perceptual learning. So we have to test if the method works in other types of learning in the future. At the same time, we have to be careful so that this method is not used in an unethical way,” Kawato said.

I find it encouraging that Kawato is considering the ethical implications even at this early stage, as there are many dark ways I can see this technology being used, but even more potential positive ways exist.

Currently, even in these relatively crude stages of the technology, it can be used to “for various types of learning, including memory, motor and rehabilitation,” according to the National Science Foundation.

Hopefully Kawato and the other researchers will keep in mind the possible unethical ways in which this technology could be used, such as military and intelligence applications, and instead make sure that it is used for the betterment of all mankind.

About the Author

Madison Ruppert is the Editor and Owner-Operator of the alternative news and analysis database End The Lie and has no affiliation with any NGO, political party, economic school, or other organization/cause. He is available for podcast and radio interviews. If you have questions, comments, or corrections feel free to contact him at [email protected]


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