The Matrix was a hit, and now a favorite among hackers, for a lot of reasons. One of the most intriguing plot devices in the movie was the characters’ ability to download new skills. For instance, Neo is able to instantaneously learn advanced martial arts techniques — at least within the digital world. While that is purely science fiction, a new type of wearable sleeve developed by Dr. Pedro Lopes at the University of Chicago’s Human Computer Integration Lab could make a simplified version of that possible.
This wearable device consists of a sleeve that covers a user’s forearm. There are a number of electrodes positioned inside of the sleeve that are capable of using electrical stimulation to activate the user’s muscles. By stimulating their muscles in precise ways, the device can cause the user to move their fingers or bend their wrist. This kind of muscle stimulation is already well-proven, and is sometimes used in rehabilitation therapy today. But Dr. Lopes believes the technique can be harnessed to help people learn the muscle movements necessary to perform completely new skills.
Dr. Lopes hopes that future users will be able to scan an RFID tag attached to something like a trombone, and the device will automatically stimulate the muscles necessary to play a tune. It’s almost like turning a user’s biological arm into a robotic arm. Theoretically, users would eventually develop the muscle memory to play it themselves. On a more practical front, the same technique could be used to teach people how to use power tools they’ve never touched before — though that idea seems awfully risky to us. More testing will be needed to find out if it’s even possible for the device to stimulate a human’s muscles in precise enough ways to make this feasible, but it has already been used for simple tasks such as peeling an avocado and operating a spray can.