Posted by: Steven Harris | May 26, 2008

Core 2 Duo Brain

I’ve often jokingly said that one day libraries would just be a chip we implant in everyone’s brain: voila! All of western culture at your neural-tips! But would actually having all that text and data in your memory really work?

I heard a segment today on American Public Media’s Future Tense program, “A prosthetic for the brain,” in which NYU psychology professor Gary Marcus extolled the virtues of developing brain chips to enhance the human memory. His idea was that a chip would eliminate forgetfulness, giving us total access to everything in our brains. A paraphrase of his idea was that when you add something to computer memory it is there “forever” and that you simply need to query it to retrieve what you want. The program made an analogy with Google: a brain chip would let you “find” things in your brain as easily as a Google search finds things on the Internet. Ahem…

Well, I’m thinking that unless this hypothetical memory chip is a lot better than current computer storage and information retrieval, we’re in for a world of frustration. Let’s attack this idea on four fronts.

  1. Computer storage is NOT forever. No form of storage that I know of is free from loss or immune from attack by magnetic fields or radiation. Don’t get your head too close to a library desensitizer! Just like digital collections, will we have to migrate and refresh our memories? How often will we have to do that?
  2. In order to retrieve our memories, all we have to do is formulate a query like on Google? I’m rolling on the floor laughing. Well, not really, but it is funny. So, when we want to remember the name of that kid who sat next to us in second grade, do we get 14,000 responses? Simply because information is stored and retrievable, does not mean that it can be instantly brought forth. Case in point, I am trying to find a file on my computer. The name of the file is fixed, it’s location permanent. But Google Desktop and I still can’t find it! Search as I may, it remains elusive.
  3. Google search results are based on a lot of external elements. High page rank means many people are linking to a particular file. The quality of the results are kind of a communal effect. How is that going to happen with our own memories?
  4. I would think that as a psychologist, Marcus would realize that perception, memory, and reality are all rather dicey. What I “see” may not be what I store in memory. Neither of them may have much to do with what actually happened.

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