The Future of Our Memories


Last friday, I participated in a symposium by this title. The co-presenters were Professor Wendy Hall and Professor Neil Burgess. It was hosted by the Royal Institution of Great Britain and was part of the EPSRC Futures series. The Chair of the debate and Director of the series was Dr Dan Glaser, who did a first class jobs. Chairs rarely get credit, but Dan was really superb. He has had a lot of experience with public engagement and his management of this session made it very enjoyable. A number of possible futures were discussed and questions were asked about the use of metaphors and analogies when imagining what constitutes our memories. Movies came up a lot as well, particularly a compendium of Jim Carrey films (Bruce Almighty, Truman Show, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Memento was also mentioned. I think we could have spent the whole evening just talking about film.

Prof. Neil Burgess also described some work on recollection that uses virtual reality environments as a means of evaluating how much people remember. Yet another example of computer game technology infiltrating the sphere of science. Last November, I learned of similar uses within surgery.

My paper attempted a socio-ethical take on the future of memory, wondering about how we might alter memories and on what basis we justify memory enhancement. Paralells are made with debates related specifically to neuroethics (recent edition of the AJOB has a number of papers about this) and the use of cognitive enhancers. It seems that the future indicates the potential to develop a refined knowledge hierarchy where some forms of knowledge will become more important than others. So, perhaps through sophisticated digital support systems, the importance of remembering factual information will be less. This could have radical implications for how we evaluate capacity and intellect.

Again, the emphasis I wish to make is that becoming posthuman need not imply radical, futuristic technologies such as memory erasure. Rather, the integration of digitisation alone into our daily lives transforms what it means to be human. A good indication of this is the use of community photograph sites, such as flickr, where your images become part of a collective memory of an event or moment.

Blurb on the Symposium Continuing our innovative look at what the future holds for us, the second in our series of ‘Futures’ debates will ask how will we use our memory in the future and how much we will rely on technology to do it for us. This reliance has already begun – consider how many phone numbers you can remember now that you can store them on your mobile phone – and looks set to continue with projects such as ‘Memories for life’. This is one of the grand challenges in the computing world, and its aim is to develop a system to both store and protect our individual memories while being sophisticated enough to allow us to sort through them. But what effects will this have on individuals and society as our ability to access information, and our dependence on external devices, increases? How can mass-storage devices be designed to interface with people and their brains so that more and more can be retrieved with less and less reliance on biological memory? And could this help people with memory impairments? Join Neil Burgess (University College London), Wendy Hall (University of Southampton) and Andy Miah (University of Paisley) as they look at the potential of future computer systems and ask should we be embracing or resisting this move towards an age when digital and physical activities not only coexist but co-operate. (Link to Royal Institution of Great Britain website).

A link to my presentation