There is a system that allows compatible humans to download and fully integrate into their minds the skillsets of the most knowledgeable experts in a field. Note that not all humans are compatible with all skills, and some skillsets have prerequisites that must be in place for the graft to 'take.' The system would be based on a combination of drugs, neuron-light-induction and cyberization. This is in the relatively near future (20-30 years).

Now, my concern was two-fold:

1) In how many fields can I make a person a world-class expert before they're at 'capacity'?

2) Can I make some downloaded skillsets 'non-permanent' without damaging the recipients? The way I'm thinking about it, for the first X days/weeks/months, they are clear and sharp as a crystal, but past the expiration date, they start fading away like home half-remembered dream. The Intellectual Property owner (the corporation or individual whose skills you're borrowing) uses this non-permanence to prevent you from being able to "sublet" the skills yourself.

Setting: My gradual "march into singularity" setting that I've been asking for help with in a few questions, such as Realistic Future Jobs, Future Kids, and Controlling AIs

  • $\begingroup$ Related proposal: "sparks" in What would change with transmission of knowledge and ability through touch? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ We have little info to go on, with enough tech you can do anything but they aren't a person anymore. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ 1) Expect that light cyborgation can't give people skills that much faster or better than normal learning. It doesn't matter if the data comes from eyes or a chip, the brain must process it. 2) The skills will be slowly forgotten if unused. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 1:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Donald Hobson: At least in my experience, learned skills aren't really forgotten, at least not entirely. They may become rusty with disuse, but can be regained with much less effort than it took to originally learn them. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 4:58

7 Answers 7


Adding to previous answers, I'd say the speed at which the implant process occurs would be a determining factor in how much you remember. For instance, say you read a book over the course of two weeks, making notes and really trying to understand what's going on. Your friend skims the thing in two hours. Now, you and your friend may be able to give a summary of the book, but you will be able to actually hold a conversation about it. Your friend will have gaps in their knowledge, whole chunks of the book that they had to forget in order to soldier on and get to the end. Even if you both were able to read every word in the book, you took the time to commit the whole thing to memory, while most of what your friend read got overridden by whatever happened next.

Like you said in the question, people won't be able to learn just any skill; they have to have the prerequisites first. To that I would add that many skills would have to be uploaded in parts, with a certain period of time to let your brain accomodate for the new information. For example, once you've processed all the details involved in moving your legs, you can download the knowledge of how to walk. If you do it too soon, while you may still know how to move your legs, you won't have retained enough information to achieve the level of precision walking demands. This sort of defeats the purpose of downloading the skills rather than learning them, but presents a more realistic middle ground between the time commitment of each.

1) As for how much you can get, like before I'd say as long as you space it out it could be pretty much endless. You will naturally trim the fat of whatever you learn, focusing it into smaller, more efficient bits of knowledge that fit more easily into your brain, but the bulk of what you need should still be there. It's also important to note that there would be overlap in many skills, and over time your brain would probably make those connections and only store one copy of that memory rather than two. Think of it like reverse file compression.

2) As for forgetting, most memories are only kept around if they're used, and constant use of a memory or skill cements it in your mind for years. If you were to insert an inhibitor chip in the brain, perhaps the user's brain would no longer acknowledge a memory as being used when it is. Thus, even though the man with the implanted knowledge of how to walk goes hiking every day, his brain thinks he just sits around all the time, and thus decides not to remember how to walk. This would be pretty easy to do (as far as pseudoscience is concerned), because the brain should emit similar signals when using a memory as when it created that memory. The best defense against this inhibitor chip would be to simply not learn anything else: if the walker just stops doing anything other than walking, while his brain doesn't acknowledge that he's using his walking memories, it won't overwrite them with anything new. This, to me, presents a lot of narrative possibilities, as users dependent on implanted memories will be forced to avoid friends and family during financial crises so they can hold onto their skills for longer, creating an ironic duality of knowledge or pleasure.

I keep on making edits, but this is the last one: flashbulb memories. Basically, something crazy happens, and you remember whatever's happening pretty much for the rest of your life. This could be another workaround to the inhibitor chip, with people who want to retain their knowledge adding drama and danger to their everyday lives in order to form deeper memories. Like how you learn a new language faster if you live where it's spoken: if your brain thinks this new skill is imperative to your survival, it's going to remember it better.


This is my own conjecture, but its backed up by what evidence I've seen

The brain does not seem to store skills like files on a harddrive. It's a lot more organic than that. It mishmoshes them together with a rhyme and reason only apparent to it.

The brain appears to encode skills relative to a person's previous experiences. The skill to open a fridge and plan a meal may appear completely unrelated to getting a MD in radiology, but one person's brain may encode the process of deciding on a radiation treatment plan using what it knew about planning a meal. In another MD, it may not, because the brain found that person's meal-planning skills weren't as helpful. Instead, they found a way to think about "treat the human, not the disease" (a very hard concept) as an offshoot of what they learned from yoga one time when twisted in a pretzel.

I had a martial art teacher who once said, "Everything I do is part of my martial art. I get up using my art. I make breakfast with my art. I walk down the street with my art." That sort of thinking is very popular amongst "health and wellbeing" groups, like yoga.

Generating those personal connections takes time. 10,000 hours, in fact. Try to do it faster, and you start learning to skip steps. You forget to raise your hand to block a punch in the form (because there was no actual punch there). You get lazy, and over-radiate your patient because you didn't pick up on the tiny hints that they were acting more succeptable to the negative side effects of radiation. You burn the pine nuts (did anyone see the Iron Chef America episode where the Iron Chef burned the pine nuts 3 times?)

I would sooner expect to see an implant which allows you rapid access to information, and people develop a skill of using it to make their other skills more proficient. A doctor could spend more of his practice learning to read patients and help them if he didn't have to spend all his time learning facts that are now on Google. (Or the same doctor may get lazy, and decide not to learn any skill, relying purely on his implant).

Finally, for non-permanent skillsets, I may have to drop off into my own fantasy of how the brain works. There are plenty of places where we are dependent on things outside ourself. We constantly say things like, "Thanks! I couldn't have done it without you!" We constantly see elderly people who are reliant on a cane for support. We see couples dances on TV which literally cannot be practiced solo; you must practice them together.

The common thread with these is interactions. There is an interaction between Self and not-Self, so we can only ever get half of the task. If you had a neural implant, you could have it do half of the task, so when your time is up, the neural implant just stops dancing with you and walks off. No physical damage, though if they were dependent on that skill as part of defining who they are, the emotional damage could be unimaginable. I think a society might evolve where this effect is visualized as similar to a wizard who can cast amazing spells, but only with his wand. Take his wand, and he's just a human being.

Another side of it is that the brain is never finished storing things. It's constantly jostling them around. Every time you use a neuron, it changes behavior ever so slightly. You could custom design a skill that could be learned and mastered, but after too long, those tiny jostlings trigger a cancerous twist in the skill which rips all value from the skill as it reaches outwards. We have similar behaviors in genetics with our telomeres, so it would not surprise me if the brain had something akin to an anti-cancer immune system that could catch this before it did real damage, but not before the skill is made useless.

  • $\begingroup$ Guitarists are a great example of this. You can know exactly where every chord is, but it takes years before your hands are trained enough to press properly. Even if you could program the muscle memory, a person who's never played before will have bleeding fingers in minutes. $\endgroup$
    – Lu22
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 13:14

Lots of details and what-ifs here. First, there's a big difference between reasonably competent and world-class expert. You won't get the second without continuous practice, especially if the skill has any physical component at all (like martial arts, music, brain surgery...). You need the muscles & reflexes, not just the knowledge.

Second, being a world-class expert is pretty much a full-time job. There are few people who are experts in more than one thing, so your upper limit for WCE-ness is maybe two or three. Reasonable competence, though, offers much wider scope. As for instance, I might be (without any false modesty :-)) a world-class programmer, but I'm also a reasonably competent wordworker, auto mechanic, cook, skiier...

Another point is that, unlike what @DaaaahWhoosh says, skill memories just don't seem to go away. They beome rusty with disuse, true, but it's much easier (at least in my experience) to come up to speed again than it is to learn the skill ab initio.

So maybe that is what your downloadable skills are like. Instead of instantly becoming a WCE (which frankly seems more like magic to me), the download is more like recovering an old skill. The recipient still needs to practice to become fully competent.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree skills don't just 'go away'. I was talking about tricking your brain into thinking it never used the skill. It'll be like going to lecture but never doing the homework: when you try to use the knowledge years later, you won't be able to, because your brain never made the connections. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 19:48

The brain can handle only so much input and the things most recently done are generally the clearest remembered. (until senility when the far past becomes more clear). If certain experiences and learned items are not frequently visited then they slowly get buried by new experiences.

It's commonly believed that it takes ~10,000 hours to master a craft, so to imprint this level of experience on a person will bury other experiences. Do this with 2 or more things and you will certainly start negatively affecting the previous 'training'.

However, if you have a cybernetic implant that can have a perfect memory of the skill sets then you could always dip back into it to refresh your skills back to tip-top shape.

I think, instead of the memories 'fading away' by design that people would pay for the level of expertise they get and of course, there will always be upgrades and improvements to add.


When it comes to reflexes, at least, it's possible skillsets could conflict. Like how the top female softball pitcher can easily strike out the best male baseball hitters (http://www.si.com/more-sports/2013/07/24/sports-gene-excerpt).

There is a level of fast where you're not really watching the ball; you're watching the pitcher throw it and making an instinctive prediction of where the ball will be. The weird dances pitchers do often don't really help them throw better, it just throws predictions off. And the way a female softball pitcher throws is just so different than how male baseball pitcher that being really good at predicting one doesn't help you with the other.

I'm not sure what would happen if someone tried to be world class at male baseball and female softball at the same time, but my guess is that being really good at one will mess you up for the other. Youe brain can only react so fast, no matter how good you are, and part of expertise is being really efficient at reacting to the right stimulus.


I would like to highlight a different problem. You have to limit the skill set. It's not completely my own thinking, I am using a setting from yet another Russian Sci-Fi novel as a reference. There, the protagonist could "download" the skills and knowledge in a similar manner to your idea. Both the "transmission channel" and the amount of skills the protagonist could use, was severely limited by the author.

The reason for this was very simple. In order not to make the protagonist a damn Marty Sue. In other words: to not overpower him. Even that limitations did not manage not to give him too much power. In said novel, the protagonist (for some reasons I do not want to detail here) "flashes" some of his abilities to special services. So they want to get him and are analysing his abilities. And they come to a conclusion, it's a group of people.

(This is an extended example, it can be skipped)

Like, the protagonist sent an analytical report KGB was able to intercept. It is written by a well-mastered analyst in his 50's, with habit of delegation and experience in scientific writing. The report was written in a well-established female handwriting. The report was then captured on film, you need some photography expertise (especially in the 70's, when the book is set) to do so. The film was shot with a god damned arrow from a blasted longbow into a window of Iranian embassy. There are like 10 people in the city capable to pull this off and they all have an alibi.

Clearly, there is a group of at least the analyst and his wife/secretary/lover/whatever, even if you assume the analyst shoots longbow really well and the scribe also is a photography specialist. In more realistic assumptions you also have a third person, who does the photo and longbow stuff.

In the actual plot, a single person with those "downloadable skills" sufficed. The point is that he did not need the photography skills while shooting longbow.

These are all difficulties that emerge if even a single person can download skills and knowledge. It is much worse if anybody can. In fact, you'd need to model up a wholly different post-industrial society for this. I am not sure if this is your intention.


Survey of the art:

George O. Smith: "The Brain Machine" If you wore the helmet while reading a book, you knew the content of the book perfectly. You could not record the process, as your brain wasn't like someone else's, and you would get garbage. This was useful for learning facts, but you still had to practice how to put the facts together.

Academic subjects fall into two categories: Ones requiring brains, and ones requiring only scholarship. The BM helped learning the base facts, and so was great for scholarship subjects that are dominated by details, but was less helpful with subjects like math and art.

It was no help at all with motor skills.

Larry Niven's story "The Fourth Profession" has aliens coming with pills that give whole knowledge sets, using RNA. (yeah, hard to suspend disbelief) The RNA was tagged so that there was a corresponding 'forgetting' pill. The hero takes a pill that makes him a prophet, with the ability to do miracles. He can turn Water into fresh Blue Mountain Jamaican coffee. He dematerializes the forgetting pill...

A bunch of Heinlein stories make casual mention of hypnopaedia (learning in your sleep)

Christopher Anvil has his Interstellar Patrol agents getting local language through an overnight process with a helmut.

Simon Ilyarin in the Vorkosigan books has a chip in his head that allows him to recall everything. It gives him perfect memory as well as the ability to replay chunks of memory. No clue how it's indexed.

So you have to decide what a skill is:

If I download Electrician into my head...

... I know the relevant codes.

... Do I know the usual sequence for wiring a house?

... Do I have the feel for how tight to grip the wire strippers to take off the insulation without nicking the wire?

... Do I have the muscle memory to fold with wires up so they fit into the electrical box?

... Do I have the eye to look at a box of wire and know if there is enough wire for a 60 foot run to the heat pump. Can I tell 12 gauge from 14 gauge by picking it up?

... Do I have the trouble shooting skill to figure out the mistake with a 4 way switch (single light can can be turned on and off from 4 different places) that leaves the light on all the time.

I guess after this, I need to weigh in on answering the actual question:

I think it's barely possible that at some point we will get some for high speed knowledge implant. But I don't think it will be enough to make you a world expert. E.g. You will easily get 5000 grand master chess games, so you can readily compare your present board to what previous players did, but you still have to play thousands of games to become a GM. You can get all of music theory in a download, but you still have to train your ear to hear and your fingers to play. You will be able to know what an olympic quality marathon runner knows, but you will still need to run a lot before you win a race, and you may not be built to be a runner, may not have the major 12 spanning fingers of a Rachmaninov, may not have the interest to play 10,000 chess games.

There was an article in Scientific American some years ago claiming that it took about 10,000 hours to become world class at anything. That's 10,000 hours of well designed practice. Note that word 'about' Factor of 2 either way. And that didn't guarantee being world class, but was what most WC people seemed to end up doing. E.g. 10000 hours is necessary, but not sufficient.

So to become a decent pianist or chess player, 3 hours a day for 10 years. But it has to be good practice.

The article also defined what 'good' meant. Mostly stuff right at the edge of your ability. Practice of the old hat stuff kept it fresh in your mind, and maintained muscle memory (scales and finger exercises) Practice of the impossibly hard was just frustrating. So unless you pay close attention to what you are doing you could spend 6 hours a day to achieve 2 hours of good practice.

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/too-hard-for-science-seeing-if-10000-hours-make-you-an-expert/ is a good starting point.


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