Monday, 20 September 2010

Memes, genes and by Jove, the future of learning

Dutch biologist Gerard Jagers op Akkerhuis from Radboud University Nijmegen predicts that the next the next step in evolution will lead to a life form in which the transfer of the blueprint by means of genes is replaced with the transfer of knowledge and collective experience by so-called ‘memes’.

In Jagers’ view:

Memes are codes that determine the structure of the brain. In turn, the structure of the brain determines someone’s knowledge. In this way, memes are carriers of brain structure and the corresponding knowledge, just like genes are carriers of protein recipes and the corresponding cell physiology.

The next life form will not necessarily develop by means of biological evolution: as far as Jagers is concerned, a machine that shows intelligent behaviour based on a neural network fulfils the definition of life. If this system can then also pass on its memory to the next generation then this involves a new step in evolution.

Consider this alongside some of the recent genetic research that is uncovering the influences on our ability as organic beings to learn more effectively. For instance, this recent report on the RGS14 gene. Apparently, switching off this single gene in mice unlocks a part of their brain that is otherwise inactive, boosting learning and memory.

Other research reports on how increasing the production of this same gene can dramatically improve visual memory. In experiments, mice could remember objects they had seen for up to two months - ordinarily the same mice would only be able to remember these objects for about an hour. Clearly, it remains to be seen if the same effects are achieved in humans, but the indications are positive.

By Jove - what are the implications?

The implications of both these developments suggest we are entering a new era of dramatically accelerated learning that is likely to be boosted by both our interventions at the genetic and pharmaceutical level, as well as our application of technology. Where these converge nicely is in a site called Jove. As the site defines itself:

The Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) was established as a new tool in life science publication and communication, with participation of scientists from leading research institutions. JoVE takes advantage of video technology to capture and transmit the multiple facets and intricacies of life science research. Visualization greatly facilitates the understanding and efficient reproduction of both basic and complex experimental techniques, thereby addressing two of the biggest challenges faced by today’s life science research community: i) low transparency and poor reproducibility of biological experiments and ii) time and labor-intensive nature of learning new experimental techniques.

This is a fantastic resource which is dramatically accelerating knowledge transfer within the scientific community. Now imagine this happening in all other knowledge domains. TED is a major catalyst in its own right (I have an article coming out that discusses this next week) and I am sure others exist already in many other fields - let me know if you know of any so I can compile a list.

Thinking about Jagers proposition further, our methods for storing and sharing knowledge and skills online using ever more sophisticated cloud-based tools surely is leading us towards on a deeper dependence on technology to pass on our memories to future generations. The recent bleating about how technology threatens our children minds (Greenfield again) misses the point - the horse has bolted and frankly is evolving rapidly into a far faster animal that we cannot yet recognise.


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