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NEXT: Next-Generation Educational Technology

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GPS, Google Maps, The Internet, robotic (driverless) cars, virtual personal assistants. These are just some of the civilian applications that were originally developed at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is the R&D group within the Department of Defense responsible for developing next-generation technologies for the military. Often, the ideas emanating from DARPA spill into the civilian, consumer world, so when we are able to glimpse what DARPA are developing, I tend to take notice.

Last year, DARPA unveiled the Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) program. The program centers on “synaptic plasticity,” which means altering the connections between two neurons in the brain. The synapses are what connect neurons together, and the strength of those connections is very important to memory and learning. Strengthening synaptic connections between neurons is a natural process: it is what happens when we learn something new. The TNT program seeks to use electrical stimulation to artificially activate synaptic plasticity. In effect, the TNT program would seek to make the acquisition of skills quicker and more efficient than traditional training methods. Or, to use DARPA’s own words, “an effort to enlist the body’s peripheral nervous system [the area around the head and neck] to achieve something that has long been considered the brain’s domain alone: facilitation of learning.”

By stimulating the nervous system, DARPA hopes to make it easier for someone to learn any number of complex cognitive skills, such as learning a new language. Now, no one is yet suggesting that electrically stimulating the brain for an hour or so would make someone fluent in a new language just like that. But, using this technique might speed up language acquisition: a soldier might learn a new language in a matter of months, not years. The expectation is that TNT will be able to increase the rate of learning and skills performance by 30 percent.

Stimulating the peripheral nerves might simulate the conditions of a toddler’s brain, which is more adaptive than an adult brain. In the same way that it is easier for a child to acquire a new language, neurostimulation might make the brain more like a toddler’s and thus more receptive to learning a new language, or indeed a whole host of other skills faster and more efficiently than traditional learning methods. It is probable, of course, that electrical stimulation will be combined with more traditional forms of learning, but the implications are that learning can be made even faster through this artificial means.

Right now, DARPA is interested in how soldiers and other military personal might be trained via these methods. But, given its long history, we should expect to see TNT expanded out into the civilian world, and education and training would be a clear area of interest. What would TNT look like in educational settings? A college classroom, for example, might have to be retrofitted for TNT devices. In the same way students today walk into class with earbuds connected to their devices, we might see the next generation of students walking into class with TNT devices connected to the backs of their necks.

In the short run, those so enhanced or augmented would have an advantage over those not so enhanced. Does this seem fair? Is it really learning if it has to be technologically-enhanced? We fault athletes for cheating when they seek out performance enhancing drugs. Students today have taken to abusing Adderall as a way to gain a cognitive advantage. Will the use of TNT constitute cheating, or will the use of such cognitive enhancement become a requirement for all students?

But over time, as more and more are so wired, that competitive advantage would go away. If TNT can increase the rate of learning by 30 percent, then we might expect a college curriculum to take 30 percent less time. Will this mean that one can get through college in less than three years? Or it might mean that more learning can be shoehorned into a traditional four year program. A semester might last only 10 weeks, and so more semesters, and more classes, could be included in a degree program. It might be easier for students to double or even triple major when learning can be so accelerated.

The experiments at this stage are also seeking to determine whether the effects can be achieved via non-invasive means, or if an invasive procedure — electrodes directly connected to the brain — is the only way to effectively stimulate the nerves. I wonder how many people will voluntarily have such a device inserted into their brains, even if it meant getting through college faster?

David Staley is president of Columbus Futurists and a professor of history, design and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is the host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday, June 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.) Our topic for the evening will be “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Education.”

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