The Allure of “Matrix-Style” Learning

“Jujitsu? I’m going to learn Jujitsu?” Neo asks incredulously, as he’s plugged in to a machine for the first time since his rescue by Morpheus and the members of the ship Nebuchadnezzar. The operator Tank loads a virtual training program, and Neo clamps his eyes shut, his body jolting in response as the data floods his visual cortex. Seconds later, Neo opens his eyes. “Holy shit!” he exclaims and agrees to more — 10 hours more — “programming.” Finally, gasping, he exclaims to Morpheus, “I know Kung Fu!”

The Matrix portrays a dystopian future where intelligent machines have subdued and enslaved the human population, but the film’s display of learning technologies — information transferred directly and instantly into the brain — is the sort of thing frequently hailed as a worthy scientific goal: learning that is efficient, scalable, standardized, and fully automated.

So it’s hardly a surprise that a press release issued by HRL Laboratories, a research center jointly owned by Boeing and General Motors, would invoke the film to boast about research it’s published in the February 2016 issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

In the press release, HRL Laboratories claims that, akin to the technology in The Matrix, it has “discovered that low-current electrical brain stimulation can modulate the learning of complex real-world skills” and that “subjects who received brain stimulation via electrode-embedded head caps improved their piloting abilities.” “It’s possible that brain stimulation could be implemented for classes like drivers’ training, SAT prep, and language learning,” the lead researcher speculates.

The press release and accompanying video have been picked up by the media, most of whom have done very little to verify the findings, or hell, even read the journal article in question. From Techcrunch, for example: “Researchers Create Matrix-Like Instant Learning Through Brain Stimulation.” From The Telegraph: “Scientists discover how to ‘upload knowledge to your brain’.”

Actually, no. They haven’t.

Those headlines do not match what the research found, perhaps because the PR video does not match what’s been published in the journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, either. And perhaps because the PR from HRL laboratories is deliberately misleading. Neither of the news stories in Techcrunch or The Telegraph mention the publishing practices of the Frontiers journals, which have had a couple of high-profile retractions and have raised concerns with their pay-to-publish model. Neither mention that the researchers have a patent pending should the concept pan out. Ah, education-technology journalism.

Here’s my attempt to explain the research and the published findings:

HRL researchers conducted an experiment with thirty-two right handed HRL employees (thirty-one of them male, all of them western and well-educated), who participated in four days of flight simulation training. Participants were randomly assigned into four groups: one group receiving transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), one receiving transcranial direct current stimulation to the left motor cortex (M1), and the other two receiving “sham” treatment to one or the other region. Electroencephalography (EEF) and functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) were collected during the flight training and during assessments, which included completing a series of landing tasks.

There was no “instant learning,” and there was no “uploading of knowledge to the brain,” despite those very excited media headlines. Indeed, the effects of the transcranial stimulation on improved learning aren’t clear at all (nor is much of the science behind any of this terribly definitive), although the stimulation did increase midline frontal theta-band oscillatory brain activity (MFT), which previous research has correlated to working memory and mental calculation. (Yes, stimulating the brain seems to stimulate the brain. Neuroscience!) The researchers did see some reduction in learning rate variance among participants, but in many of the assessments, there was no statistically significant differences between the “sim” and “sham” groups.

This might be the key paragraph from the journal article’s conclusion:

A goal of this research was to determine if tDCS stimulation would improve training techniques for pilots in a flight simulator. Such improvements could drastically reduce time and therefore the cost of training a pilot, as it would in any training environment. While our results show decreased variability in training, it is too early to confirm or deny any useful improvements to simulation training until an understanding of the sources and contributing factors to the observed behavioral variance is achieved.

So the long and short of it, I suppose: more research is needed.

But “more research is needed” doesn’t make for good headlines, particularly when you can churn out clickbait about the future of learning and technology by invoking a popular science fiction trope.

Whether or not this is science or fiction, let’s consider why “Matrix-style learning” is so compelling. Stories like this seem to emerge with some frequency. (We might ask too, why do neuroscientific claims frequently go unchallenged by the press — but then again, so much education/technology journalism is wildly uncritical. Parroting PR is pretty routine.)

Science aside, let’s think about culture and society. What’s the lure of “instant learning” and in particular “instant learning” via a technological manipulation of the brain? This is certainly connected to the push for “efficiency” in education and education technology. But again, why would we want learning to be fast and cheap? What does that say about how we imagine and more importantly how we value the process of learning?

It’s worth pointing out that the researchers in the press release call their particular brain stimulation headgear a form of “personalization” — personalization in the service of more efficient (and yet still completely standardized) training and testing. And it’s probably worth noting too that this research involves simulation; with a growing chorus of corporate interests pushing virtual reality in education, let’s be prepared for an onslaught of claims about “brain-based learning” via VR environments.

And I bet The Matrix, despite being an utterly dystopian future, will be invoked again and again as the future of ed-tech.

(This story first appeared on Hack Education.)

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