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'Hi, yes of course I remember meeting you... at the... thing'
'Hi, yes of course I remember meeting you... at the... thing'
Image: Shutterstock

Hello brain implants, goodbye forgetting people's names: The future of your memories

Sarah Harford on the technologies that could change the way we remember things (and mean we’ll never embarrass ourselves at parties again).
Aug 23rd 2019, 11:16 AM 255 0

The way we live is changing fast. Every fortnight in our Future Focus series, brought to you by Volkswagen, we’ll look at how one aspect of everyday life could change in the future. This week: memories. 

‘YOU KNOW YER man? Who wrote the book about the place?’

We all struggle to remember things sometimes. Human memory is very powerful but it is also notoriously fallible, so it is common to forget or misremember details and our ability to remember can start to deteriorate as we age.

There are several practical ways to keep our brains in shape. Exercise, sufficient sleep and stress management have all been shown to help our ability to learn and to remember. 

But in the future, could technology also play a role in recalling things we’ve forgotten, boosting our memories or preserving cognitive function?

Tech tools 

When we think about memory-boosting technology for the average person, we might consider brain-training games or fonts that are designed to help you memorise things you read.

But Owen Conlan, associate professor of computer science at Trinity College Dublin, is looking at more significant ways technology could help our memories through personalisation based on user experience. 

He says that with more technology in our lives there are certain things we don’t have to remember anymore, but we now have to deal with a “sheer overload of information” instead. For example, you might not memorise someone’s phone number but you do need to think about how you usually contact them – phone, text, email, WhatsApp, Facebook.

“Technology gives and it takes away – it makes some things easier and some things harder. But trying to keep track of a huge volume of things, that’s where tech can come in. 

“Like summarising things. What if you could ask your phone to summarise the conversation you had with John last week? There could be a technology that would look at the flow of words and key topics, and summarise it down to make an aide memoire or a digital support to trigger your memory.”

Source: Shutterstock

Although many might not like the idea of their phone eavesdropping on them and analysing conversations, we’re all becoming more comfortable with technology measuring things about our lives, Conlan adds. Your phone could have access to your contacts, messages, photos, calendar, you might have an app that keeps track of how many steps you did or where you’ve gone.

“Digital devices capture a lot of our day-to-day activities. So we could model a user with regards to what they’re doing. If you can capture images of your day and the words that you speak, that’s quite a lot of data.

“Then by drawing on your experience and connecting to the bigger web of knowledge, it gives us a big opportunity to be able to recall memory. It’s just about those things you can’t recall, like a fleeting thing that happened, where you might have a half-baked description of it.”

Conlan suggests that you could have a personalised system based on your activity and history, maybe on your phone or using augmented reality, that you could query when you need to jog your memory. What was that fountain I saw on holidays last year? Who is that Cork footballer I was reading about the other day?

He says we might all see some version of these ideas in the future, but the challenges developing the models are “part technical, part social”.

“One of the biggest barriers is the disconnectedness of the information. And then there are concerns about privacy and ethics. Are you ok with technology listening to your every word? We’re starting to grapple with that now with devices like Siri and Alexa.”

Brain implants

For those with more serious memory conditions than just struggling to remember where you went for dinner last week, scientists are already trying to find high-tech ways to intervene.

A recent study suggested that electrical brain stimulation could be used as a therapy for people with severe memory loss or brain injuries.

The study found that age-related decline in working memory could be reversed by stimulating different regions in the brain and putting the brain waves back ‘in sync’. Although it was only tested on healthy volunteers, there were suggestions that the research could lead to new ways of helping to boost brain function in people with dementia.

Elsewhere, researchers have also been looking at more invasive possibilities such as memory-boosting brain implants.

For example, scientists at the University of California developed a brain implant device that works a bit like a pacemaker – sending electric pulses to a person’s brain when they’re struggling to learn new information. A test of the device last year showed it could improve memory recall by 15%.

Source: Shutterstock/Adrian Grosu

 

Although there are no available therapies yet and more research is needed, there could potentially be time in the near future when people with dementia, Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injuries and other conditions that damage memory will benefit from an electronic implant.

And if these memory-enhancing implants do eventually work as expected, some have even suggested that their use could go beyond people with serious conditions, and could provide a boost for anyone with normal age-related memory loss.

So in the future if you’re struggling to remember the name of a book or restaurant, you might just need to upgrade your brain implant.

Total recall 

In one episode of sci-fi programme Black Mirror, small devices are implanted in people’s heads that record everything they see and hear. Each person’s memories can then be played back for themselves or for other people to watch. 

But in the real world is there some way that we could easily review what has happened to us and even share it with other people? 

The basic idea is not too dissimilar to the kind of personalised model that Conlan describes for supporting memory, but he isn’t convinced that kind of technology could easily be placed in our brains using an implanted device any time soon. 

“It’s different when there’s a medical need and there’s a desire to improve somebody’s wellbeing. But getting an optional extra like a memory chip – I think that’s just sci-fi for now,” Conlan says. 

“I think it comes down to the fundamental difference between how information is stored in computers versus how we store and think about things in our mind. We’re complex creatures and machines are still relatively simple.” 

So while we may see memory-boosting brain implants in the future, or personalised tech systems that can help jog our memories, it doesn’t seem as though technology will be giving us all perfect recall any time soon. 

For now if you’re really looking to keep your memory sharp, you might just need to stick to a good night’s sleep.

The future is nearer than you think. Discover Volkswagen’s range of current and next-gen electric vehicles at volkswagen.ie/electric.    

More: Bye bye large Americano, hello alertness algorithms: The future of your morning coffee> 

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