Designing the cognitive future, part II: memory

Authors: Juan Hourcade
Posted: Fri, April 05, 2013 - 2:59:01

In these posts I’ve been discussing how interactive technologies are affecting our cognitive processes, and exploring how they may do so in the future. In the previous post I discussed perception. In this post I discuss memory.

Interactive technologies are already changing the things we need to remember. Phone numbers, email addresses, and directions can now be easily retrieved. The vast amount of information on the Internet is also changing what we need to teach. Memorizing content is certainly much less important than it used to be, while knowing where to find it and how to use it is the new difference maker.

We may see even more dramatic changes on what we need to remember about people. Augmented reality systems, such as Google Glass, could have the potential of making it unnecessary to remember people’s names or other information about them as it could pop up for us to read as we meet them. While this sounds a bit extreme, it is certainly possible, and at least in some cases it could lead down a negative path of stopping to genuinely care to get to know other people.

The biggest change though is in the unprecedented amount of information being recorded about our lives. Heavy users of social media can go back and find out what they were thinking about, watching, or reading on a particular date. Electronic calendars can let us know what we were doing in the office on particular day at a particular time several years ago.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Children are growing up with an incredible amount of information being recorded about them. It is not unusual for parents to take dozens of pictures of their children every year, something that was unusual before digital cameras. Some parents have even recorded pictures of their children every day. Deb Roy at MIT went further and recorded everything happening in his apartment using several video cameras and microphones when his baby was born. While this may seem extreme, with the increasing use of smart appliances that include video cameras and microphones, we are not that far from being able to do that. Smartphones are certainly capable of tracking our movements outside our homes, providing the possibility of knowing where we were at any point in time.

Combined with advances in neuroscience that I mentioned in my last post, it may be possible in the future to re-experience any part of our lives, not just by watching video and listening to audio, but by actually feeling again the whole spectrum of stimuli we felt at the time. This could enable people to relive happy memories, and to share those with others. It could also change the way we understand history. It would make it easier for someone from the future to get a much richer sense of what it was like to live a day in the 21st century. 

These technologies would also give us the ability to experience an event from someone else’s perspective. This could have very positive consequences in helping people understand situations from someone else’s point of view. It could even help people understand what it is like to spend a day in someone else’s shoes. Such an ability could potentially increase empathy and compassion, and help people realize the humanity of people from other groups. I think selective recording and sharing such as this would provide some of the most positive outcomes while helping retain privacy.

Related to memories of actual events are memories of dreams. Yukiyasu Kamitani and his colleagues from the Department of Neuroinformatics at ATR in Japan have developed software to analyze brain activity while people sleep. They trained the system by waking people up in the middle of dreams and asking for detailed reports of what they were dreaming. Using this data, they are able to often predict the content of people’s dreams. Further advancements could perhaps enable us to remember and replay dreams. Maybe we would wake up in a better mood if we could choose to dream some of our better dreams every night.

As with all other future technological developments, we have choices on what we design and how to design it. In the case of memory, the consequences of what we design could range from a complete loss of privacy (even of our own memories), to providing unprecedented ways of understanding situations from someone else’s point of view, and keeping these memories alive for future generations.

What do you think? How would you like to use technology to enhance your memory?

Posted in: on Fri, April 05, 2013 - 2:59:01

Juan Hourcade

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, focusing on human-computer interaction.
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