The challenge of using electronic tools to supplement human memory has been addressed by a BCS Thought Leadership debate on assistive memory technologies.
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IT leaders at the debate heard that digital technology is being used in developing new memory aids. The use of these devices is in its early stages, but in future memory aid functionality could be integrated into devices such as mobile phones or watches that are linked using Bluetooth technology.
With the move to online storage, and the rise of sites such as Flickr and Facebook, different possibilities for storing increasing amounts of data are emerging. The debate heard that the methods people use to store their information could become highly distributed in future.
As well as having personal data in lots of different places, it is likely to be stored in many formats. This raises issues of accessibility and long-term format compatibility.
The debate heard that assistive memory technologies will need to include intelligent software that can act as a "companion" to the user, understanding their physical situation and offering up appropriate information from the user's data repositories.
The challenge of building such companions is a variant of the challenge confronting artificial intelligence. How much adaptivity and intelligence do such companion systems need before they become useful? Ideally, they would be able to infer the desires and beliefs of their users so as to offer up appropriate help, advice and control at the right moment, in the right format.
There are many problems associated with using memory aid devices. The debate heard that reliance on devices could make people lazy, in the same way that the use of calculators means many people can no longer do mental arithmetic.
The counter argument to this is that using an assistive memory device for everyday information frees the mind to remember other things. After all, because of calculators, we no longer need to remember algorithms for long division or for finding the square root of a number.
People's capacity to spell may undergo a similar transformation in an age of automated spelling and grammar checking, the debate heard.
Another big issue is privacy. Storing large amounts of personal information online is a huge security risk. And, ethically, who has the right to view your "memory" once it has been recorded?