Learning in a digital ‘cyberpunk’ world #LRN2024

A lot of you have probably come across the concept of a brain/computer (wetware/hardware) interface which allows people learn new skills, obtain knowledge and interface directly with other systems through science fiction movies and novels (William Gibson’s work for example)  and recently there was a paper published which seems to show the first documented brain to brain interface.  After my recent post for #lrn2024 and  question from a friend of mine Eric, I started to think about the effects on this kind of process on learning and the acquisition on knowledge and skills.

Let me set the scene for you first and then we can begin to discuss what impacts these ideas may have.

Think about a world where the need to learn skills and obtain knowledge in a traditional manner is no longer necessary, rather when one needs a particular set of skills or knowledge one simply ‘installs’ in much like installing a new piece of software on a computer or perhaps more like running portable apps on a computer rather than installing anything, but both ideas tend to work in the same way though as we may see there may be more permanence in case than the other.  We might call this kind of learning, if we decide that it is in fact learning and not something else, Interface Learning, that is where skills or knowledge are acquired through the utilisation of some for of interface. So if we take something simple (though in true actually quite complex) like driving a car.  I have learnt to drive an automatic vehicle, however in a particular instance I need to drive a manual  vehicle, so I simply ‘chip’ the skills and knowledge into by brain through some kind of wetware/hardware interface (think a USB port just behind my ear) and I am able to drive the manual vehicle with the skill and precision of a formula one racing driver.  So what then happens when I no longer need to driver the vehicle?  Well there would seem to be two options;

  1. I could simply remove the ‘chip’ removing the skills and knowledge from my brain much like disconnecting a usb drive running portable apps, or
  2. The skills are installed in brain by the process and thus left there, much like installing software on to a computer

both of these options would, it seems, have advantages, so lets look quickly at the two options and then we can look at what I think the real problem that exists behind this sort of technology might be.  The advantages to the first option are simple and really the same as the disadvantages, I never actually need to know very much at all, I just need to have a sufficiently large cache of ‘chips’ to provide me with the skills and knowledge that I need for particular circumstances, perhaps even being able to ‘chip’ multiple sets of skills and knowledge at once to accomplish complex tasks or tasks requiring a wide range of skills and knowledge.  The advantage would be that I could spend my time occupying my brain with whatever I chose to do with it and not need to spend multiple years learning skills and obtaining knowledge.  Of course the disadvantage is that if there is a problem with ‘chip’ then there is a severe problem with my ability to do the things that I would need to do.   So maybe this is really an augmenting technology where skills that I don’t require often, or high specialised or complex are those that I would ‘chip’ in while more basic skills were learnt in a more traditional manner.

So lets look at the second option, where I install the skills and knowledge as I need them but they remain there like programs on a computer hard drive.  There seems to be less problems with this sort of option as, as with software I would simple need to ‘click’ on it and the skills would be available to be again, or once installed they would ‘run in the background’ much as skills and knowledge tend to do now.  Think about however, what happens with computers, and we could well say already happens with our brains currently, hard drives get full and we have to delete things (we forget or lose access to our memories), software and hardware are no longer compatible, files and systems get corrupted and no long work in way they originally did, if at all, and all of the programs running in the background fill up our available ram and all of our processes slow down or blue screen.

There is however to my mind another issue with all of these ideas and that is what happens to our skills and knowledge over time and where do new skills and knowledge come from.  If I no longer have to practice a skill or utilise my knowledge then it is liable I think to stagnate.  Take again the example of driving a car I have been driving a car for nearly 30 years, and my driving has changed substantially over that time, I am a far more competent driver now in a wider range of vehicles than I was when I was 18, and I have learnt things about driving in particular areas or circumstances which are particular to that area or circumstance.  If however, all I had ever done when I needed to drive a car was to chip the skills and knowledge, drive the car and then turn the knowledge off when I was finished, my knowledge of driving a car may be the same for the most part every time I drove, year after year, particularly if I only drive on limited occasions.  I am also faced with the issue of skills upgrades what if I want to drive better, drive a truck as well as a car, or a wide range of cars, with changing configurations, will the chip that I have be able to cope with all of these permutations, or will I need and upgrade as the years pass by to cope with the changing world.  There in also lies the other issue, if this ‘chipped’ learning becomes the predominant means of obtaining the skills to achieve tasks, then where will these skill upgrade come from, will there be artisans who specialise in developing skill sets in more traditional ways, so that this skill and knowledge can be copied and transferred to others.

I would be really interested in hearing your thoughts on this as it has started some deeper thinking for me on this idea of interface learning and skill acquisition.


About pauldrasmussen
Paul Rasmussen is one of Australia’s most widely read Vocational Education and Training Commentators. He provides deep, unbiased analysis and insights not only on topical issues, but also on the underlying structure and policy which supports the industry. His writing and analysis has been praised for its uncompromising and thought provoking style and its ability to focus on the issues of real importance to the sector. He has advised various government departments and ministers, training providers, public and private organisations, not for profits and small to medium enterprises on the VET sector and the issues and opportunities facing it. He is one of Australia’s most awarded learning professionals and a regular speaker at a range of conventions and forums. His extensive experience in vocational education, and learning and development coupled with formal qualifications in philosophy, ethics, business and education management allow Paul to provide a unique view of the road ahead and how to navigate it.

4 Responses to Learning in a digital ‘cyberpunk’ world #LRN2024

  1. Barb Tyndall says:

    Very interesting: would we need external data storage for backup, and if so, could a competent hacker, or anyone with a hacking ‘chip’ installed be able to hack into our brains with fMRI technology?

  2. Ryan Tracey says:

    The Singularity is near!

    To me, the interface learning scenario that you describe is an advanced example of distributed knowledge. For centuries we’ve reduced the burdens on our brains by transferring knowledge to tablets and books, and more recently to hard drives and web servers, not to mention the knowledge that we know is in other people’s heads. The connectivist philosophy maintains that it is more important to learn this network of knowledge sources (“know where”) than the knowledge itself (“know what”). In this age of shrinking knowledge half-life, there’s something to this.

    The USB chip thingy is a fascinating concept. I wonder though how applicable it would be to a skill such as driving a car. We know that we can read books and watch videos until the cows come home and become experts on how to drive a car, but it’s not until we get behind the wheel and give it a go that we *can* drive a car. Is the USB not simply providing us with the foundational knowledge? I can not see how we could argue how one has acquired the skill without putting the knowledge into practice and refining it in that most complex of ways that could never be transferred artificially.

    On the subject of cars, remember the days when we used to learn how to get from A to B? If we took away everyone’s GPS, would they be lost?

  3. Eric Livingston says:

    Your post Paul taps into some fundamental questions:
    What is learning?
    What is knowledge?
    What are skills?
    The world in which you painted seemed to hint at information download rather then acquiring any inherent understanding on what knowledge is required to perform a given task or work in a particular field. I dare say in some vocations there may be an element of information download being enough in some situations to perform a task adequately. However, when we look at individual variables that can occur in any given situation (working with people for example), can every variable be accounted for?

    I couldn’t help but think as I was reading about how you eloquently paired problems with computer memory and how that parallels our own brains capacity to hold on to information that it does come down to the application, ‘skill acquisition’ over information sharing which, learning institutions grapple with.

    How do we effectively impart information with meaningful opportunities to apply this information so that a student/participant/client has obtained knowledge, rather than information, and gains the confidence in imparting this foundational learning in various situations?

    Does our accountability lie in the giving of information for cerebral assimilation at a time deemed required, or does our accountability lie in providing the meaningful acquisition of information to form a sound knowledge base upon which a person can learn when they feel is situationally appropriate to apply learned skills?

    • pauldrasmussen says:


      I think that one of the watershed’s that we are facing or will soon face is the question of what is learning. If I can through and interface of some kind not only download the knowledge of how to do a task, but additionally import the physicality of of the task, so that is actually acquire the skills themselves, then that changes the face of learning significantly, particularly if I can simply swap skill sets at any given time. I believe that there are certainly things that we need to learn, sills and knowledge that form a basis of our ability to interact and to move through the world, but I am becoming increasingly thoughtful about the idea that there are a whole range of skills and knowledges that we don’t need to learn, but which we simply need to acquire and disacquire as needed.

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