Know and Remember Everything, Always and Instantly

By Kyle Munkittrick | May 5, 2011 8:38 am

Imagine you know everything on Wikipedia, in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the contents of every book in digital form. When someone asks you what you did twenty years ago, on demand you recall with perfect accuracy every sensation and thought from that moment. Sifting and parsing all of this information is effortless and unconscious. Any fact, instant of time, skill, technique, or data point that you’ve experienced or can access on the internet is in your mind.

Cybernetic brains might make that possible. As computing power and storage continue to plod along their 18-month doubling cycle, there is no reason to believe we won’t at least have cybernetic sub-brains within the coming century. We already offload a tremendous amount of information and communication to our computers and smartphones. Why not make the process more integrated? Of course, what I’m engaging in right now is rampant speculation. But a neuro-computer interface is a possibility. More than that: cyber-brains may be necessary.

The idea of a cyber-brain is pretty simple. Our brains are all-in-one systems that store, process, organize, and collect data. A cybernetic brain would augment one, many, or all parts of that system.  The processing and organization part, not to mention analysis and synthesis, would require something resembling artificial intelligence. People would probably be wary to jack themselves into an A.I. helper brain. So, based on current trends and my rudimentary knowledge of computer progress, my guess is that cybernetic collection, storage, and retrieval of information will be the easiest pieces to integrate into our biological brains: a neural external hard drive. We’ve externalized the storage process for ages – the written word, anyone? But what if we could internalize it again?

That’s what cyber-brains could allow. Ever since we started writing things down, we’ve been trying to make it faster and easier to write, to read what others write, and to remember what we read. A cyber-brain takes the externalization potential of computers (massive amounts of stable and inexpensive data storage with rapid and accurate recall) and removes the lag time. Instead of sitting at your computer or pulling out your phone, opening the file, and taking in the contents, the information is already in your cyber-sub-brain. Anything you store on your cyber-brain, from a song to a novel to the contents of Wikipedia, would be as easily and rapidly accessible as your most vivid memories currently are. Speaking of, your memories would be stored more accurately and permanently than regular ol’ neurons can allow. Almost any piece of information you might need, whether experienced or downloaded, would be at your mental fingertips.

We face a spectacular information glut. It is impossible for any one person to, say, watch every good movie on Netflix, read every informative entry on Wikipedia, and follow every worthy news story. There just isn’t enough time to absorb and process all that content. But what if I didn’t have to actually watch or play or read the item in question to grok its quality and content? Cyber-brains might allow you to, a la Neo and Trinity in The Matrix, to download huge data sets and immediately utilize them. The major advantage is that the time-cost of gathering information becomes nearly zero. Thus, the extra time is freed up for information to be analyzed, synthesized, and, more importantly, utilized.

In the coming years, we may need a form of externalized cybernetic memory to compensate for the overwhelming influx of data. The ability to take digital files and put that content within direct, immediate access of the mind would at least give the average person a fighting chance.The possible benefits are almost unimaginable. Instead of the current information crisis, where the wealth of the world’s knowledge is available at a mouse-click but there is literally not enough time to absorb it all, we would be faced with a world of ultra-informed individuals. What would that world look like?

The optimistic part of me wants to believe all of that data would become knowledge that would lead to happier relationships, more logical decisions (e.g. voting, finances), and a better world would result. The pessimistic part of me fears a world of cynics and nihilists, simultaneously overwhelmed by and indifferent to the wealth of information they possess. The world would continue as it is, just a bit more jaded by what we all know.

The realistic part of me suspects something in between. In a world of cyber-brains, everyone would have nearly the same degree of information. However, information is just information until a mind processes and understands it. Thinking would still take a lot of work, and sometimes letting someone else do the thinking for you is still easier.  “Education” would be all practice and application. Granted, your basic intelligence would limit your processing power. Even though an infant with a cyber-brain might “know” calculus, she wouldn’t be able to understand calculus. Epistemology aside, the take away point is that a cyber-brain would eliminate the need for lectures, text-books, and rote memorization. Critical thinking and creative utilization would become the main priorities of education. Perhaps social stratification due to pure intelligence would be more noticeable, or maybe it’ll be willpower and determination that draw the lines.

My hope is that people would at least be more skeptical and the most egregious liars (coughGlennBeckcough) would have much less flexibility in spinning the facts their way. The first step towards understanding is raw data. The more people who have data, the more people will have real knowledge. What they do with that knowledge is still their prerogative. So I suspect the more things change, the more they will stay the same.

Sadly, cyber-brains are still a long, long way away. Until then, I guess we just won’t know. And I pray I don’t lose my phone. I keep a lot of the best bits of my brain in there.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog and on facebook and twitter.

Image of cyber-brain via Wikipedia: Ghost in the Shell

MORE ABOUT: Cyber-brain, memory

Comments (25)

  1. Jumblepudding

    Generally not a fan of japanese animation, but those super-detailed mechanical shots like that included with the article are undeniably cool.

  2. Dan

    This will truly be the next major revolution of mankind. Just need to buy a good antivirus, don’t want ‘em viruses to mess with your memories.

  3. “So, based on current trends and my rudimentary knowledge of computer progress, my guess is that cybernetic collection, storage, and retrieval of information will be the easiest pieces to integrate into our biological brains: a neural external hard drive.”

    Not. Even. Close. Transmitting frequencies to cortices is the easiest type of integration, in fact, we’re starting to do it already. Storing memories and knowledge is by far the most difficult aspect. It’s the equivalent of saying that terraforming a planet in another solar system will be the easiest part of space exploration.

    When you put text into a word processing file, the program encodes the text using a standard format, typically ASCII or some variation thereof unless you’re using a language requiring Unicode. The encoded text is then formatted into zeroes and ones and a pointer to the places where the different bits of text will be stored in physical memory in a specialized table (bytes from the same file don’t necessarily exist in the same place in your storage medium). Want top open it back up? Reverse this process. Want to access it with a thought? That’s where we start running into very serious problems.

    Let’s say that I’m about to wire up a computer to your brain with the file you wrote. How do I program the computer to retrieve the file by your thought? The most reasonable place to start would be in the speech motor cortex because I could associate the words you’re trying to speak to the file. Unfortunately, it would mean that I’d also have to drill holes in your head and put in lots and lots of probes to contact the outside world, otherwise, I’d leave you prone to infection with wires coming out of your head. I can’t put an actual hard drive inside your skull because there’s no room for it there, so you’ll have to carry it around at all times if you want to recall that file. At this point, it would be easier to just look at the thing.

    But the problems continue because if you try to decrypt the file in your brain, we as of now, have very little idea to where to send the information and how. We know some neurons have to be excited, but in what sequence? There’s no standard protocol by which this happens and every individual seems to have slight variations of these patterns, no big deal for biology, but requiring a custom fit for every computer system. And what if you want to write to a file by thought alone? Considering that we have very little idea of how memories are actually formed, you’ll probably get little more than binary garbage at the end because we’ll have to learn how to parse your unique brain chemistry and signaling patterns, then turn them into ACSII text. Oh and no stray thoughts. One of those and your precious file is now corrupted. You’ll need to be beyond zen and utterly focused.

    But wait, we’re not done. Want to upload books to your brain? Sure, just download them into your brain drive and then… Oh, wait. You can’t actually read from that brain drive because we don’t know where to fire the modified bytes of data in your cortices or let your brain know that you have all this relevant new knowledge so you can retrieve what you need rather than re-read the entire thing in your mind whenever you want to get that bit of knowledge out. You’d need some sort of database to fragment and index all your new knowledge. Only how to communicate it to the rest of the brain and decide how to break it down? We still don’t really know how the brain does that.

    Finally, human psyche is used to forgetting things because it’s a mechanism by which we shield ourselves from mental distress, cast away trivia with which we don’t need to clutter our minds (does what you ate for dinner on 11/5/1990 really matter in the grand scheme of things?), and makes remember important things easier. Forcing the mind to remember everything is bound to backfire, especially if you find yourself the suspect of a crime. If you think The Patriot Act is an overreach of your individual rights, wait until there’s a court order for your knowledge and memories, and they’re going to be recorded. Why did you pick up that book on firearms and download it’s content into your brain? You’ll have to explain that before a judge and an ambitious prosecutor eager for a conviction so he can get a notch in his belt and move on to bigger and better things…

    So while I’m glad that you’re having a great time imagining how totally awesome it will be when you have a Ghost In The Shell style brain, the actual problems with making this possible put it on par with those “what if I could fly to work with a jetpack” dreams which have many real world reasons to remain dreams for a very, very long time, if they’ll ever become feasible and practical.

    Oh, and speaking of Ghost In The Shell, remember the biggest downside of an electronic brain? Hacking. Spear phishing and network sniffing for credit card numbers, personal data, and passwords? Ha! Just open up Wireshark or your own custom take on the PCAP library and track someone’s thoughts. You’re now an instant telepath and identify thief….

    • Kyle Munkittrick

      Wow. Greg, thank you for the detailed and massive comment.

      I agree, there are certainly aspects I didn’t cover and analyze completely. Your analysis of why cybernetic brains are going to be difficult, if not impossible, are on the money. As I said, the technology is very, very far away. Most of the problems you describe fall into one of two categories: interface and security. Making biological systems talk to digital ones and visa-versa in a seamless and stable way is a huge, perhaps insurmountable, problem. Same with security. As Gene Hackman says in Enemy of the State “The only privacy is left in your head.” But even that might be compromised if we can’t make the interface secure.

      However, if there is ever a cybernetic brain, it will be easier to integrate the storage of knowledge and memories than it will be to integrate cybernetic-sub-minds that actively think and process information. I don’t think your analogy to terraforming holds up. Space exploration = data transmission, sure. Terraforming = storage. Ok, I’m with you. But what I was arguing is that storage will happen before external cybernetic processing. By that measure, your analogy would have cybernetic processing as something along the lines of seeding a barren planet such that life would evolve into an intelligent species. Yes, cybernetic storage is an order of magnitude more difficult than mere transmission, but cybernetic processing is a further order of magnitude greater than storage.

      So, in short, I agree, interfacing and transmission will be hard. But I believe storage will be easier than processing.

      Am I reading you correctly?

  4. Matthew Saunders

    It was father of Cyberpunk, Rudy Rucker, who I first got the whole notion of just what my memory really is…

    My memory isn’t just what is inside me head, BUT it is also all the photos, all the writing I have, all the post-it notes, all the scribbled phone numbers, passwords, etc etc etc.

    So, this whole ‘cyber brain’ thing isn’t that strange at all, at all, once put into the proper perspective :)

    And just think of this, for the FIRST TIME IN HUMANITY’S HISTORICAL EXISTENCE, with the internet, we WILL NOT FORGET. This is a memory that, barring accident, DOESN’T GO AWAY. This is already having large implications of IP…old IP is built around doing a delicate dance between giving content creators rights to their content and making sure innovation still happens by allowing those rights to lapse, be forgotten, after a while…

    Rudy Rucker has also thought up this NIFTY IDEA of a LifeBox…search for the concept, he has many books and websites :)

  5. Matt B.

    Sheesh, Greg, I was just going to say someone will have to design a better search engine. :)

    And, Kyle, it’s “vice versa”.

  6. “thank you for the detailed and massive comment.”

    Comp sci grad student. Couldn’t help myself… :)

    “if there is ever a cybernetic brain, it will be easier to integrate the storage of knowledge and memories than it will be to integrate cybernetic-sub-minds…”

    Well the question is why bother with storage when retrieval will be exceedingly difficult if not practically impossible? You got lots of data, now you can’t do anything with it. However, again, since we don’t really know how memories are formed we can’t go from stimulus to artificial storage. In this case, the recording is just as complex and personal and retrieval.

  7. Well when you are little this is what mum and dad seem to be able to do; then you find out better. So this will help mum and dad remember what it was they used to remember so well!

  8. Kyle Munkittrick

    @ Matthew Saunders: Right! Memory externalization is nothing new. So the question is how do I access that information reliably, quickly, and easily?

    @Matt B: I always substitute the e for an a, I don’t know why. Good catch.

    @ Greg: Here’s the thing: we already use external memory. A string around the finger is good, using written language in a notebook is better, having access to email and wikipedia on my phone is better still for remembering. I’m still using one or two senses (usually visual or auditory) to translate that data from external to internal. My post was an attempt to take the idea to the logical extreme of near perfect integration.

    Really, the science of cyber-brains is simply too far flung to even speculate. My interest is in the social impact. We know what happens when we have all the world’s information at our fingertips – we surf Facebook and watch cat videos. It’s all too much to process. I’m curious as to what would enable people to utilize that information. Is it instant groking through cyber-memory? Or algorithmic (perhaps A.I. based) filtering? What about straight-up pre-processing in a sub-cyber-brain?

    We have the information, what is it going to take to let the individual mind truly benefit from having access to so much data?

  9. “Here’s the thing: we already use external memory…”

    What you are referring to are external references rather than memory. And if anything, with the technology we have today and will have in the future, it will be faster and easier to find exactly what you need, and in fact, when we also start having seamless translation between languages (and we’re getting there rather quickly), humans will really start seeing some of the best possible rewards from this huge burst of data. So to answer your question, A.I.-enabled filtering (my specialty btw) is overwhelmingly likely to be what we’ll use to make the most of the data around us.

  10. Eric

    I really see it less as your brain is the computer than, your brain is the keyboard/mouse/monitor/speakers – input/output device of your choice. Growing a filimental intrabrain interface device is more practical than surgically implanting a harddrive and cpu into your body. Especially if Morre’s law continues at anything like it’s present rate. I really don’t want a surgery every 18 months so that I can keep up, but a basic wireless interface built into the brain especially the sense centers combined with a handheld device that controls the translation storage would be more manageable.

    In fact that would open solve many of the Zen concentration type problems with saving and selecting. It would lack the instant recall but it would allow almost the same level of information transfer in a ubicutously wifi society.

    It would also allow direct sensory input in a wider range of senses, the coding would be an issue, as Greg mentioned, but it would be possible to activate smells and tastes as well as sight and sound. Come to think about it the industry will probabily be driven by first parapalegia mentally controling artifical linbs and then by porn.

  11. Matthew Saunders

    # 9 Kyle: “@ Matthew Saunders: Right! Memory externalization is nothing new. So the question is how do I access that information reliably, quickly, and easily?”

    By asking your wife/husband :)

    That’s the rub. Then comes the question of is that really necessary? Or is it just F U N :)

    I wonder if anyone has ever tried to compare natural human capability vs. some form of cyberenhanced/GM modified memory?

    The state would probably want to do the cyberenhanced memory because more money can be made off of that bit…

  12. Brian Too

    As several have alluded, a better (more sophisticated) and higher speed interface to an external memory store is the intermediate step. It’s achievable now, in theory, and sidesteps the whole memory loading/encoding/retrieval mystery.

    While the latter is intriguing, it’s a lot farther away. In fact with the memory research I’ve read it might be problematic in terms of reliability. I read that memory retrieval uses the same pathways that memory encoding does, which makes memories vulnerable to alteration. This is why memory can fail us. However it is radically different from computer mass storage systems which emphasize reliability.

    Perhaps a cyber-brain will alter us in ways beyond simply giving us gigantic memories?

  13. Shalabh Saraf

    This seems to be like a major revolutionary thing, but there can be no comparison between Biological Brain & Silicon/cyber-Brain. As said above Information will be information until it is processed by mind.

  14. Paul

    People who have perfect recall of every moment of their lives don’t describe it as a gift, but as a constant intrusion. So even if this was possible, I’m not sure you’d want it too tightly integrated with your normal memory recall mechanism.

    As an aside, Kyle, you’ve focused on awareness of fixed-information (wikipedia/OED/life-logger), but if you had something interacting with your brain that could both read and impress information, and so did most other people, I suspect that fixed-information would be the least important use. Instead, it’d be the communication and social effects that would dominate.

    Ie, you wouldn’t ring someone up (or text/email), you’d want to give/receive information, coordinate activities, or just socially-connect, and it would all happen subconsciously. You’d simply be aware of each other, of what you’re doing, where you want to go, or just a moment of shared awareness and connection. (Or not, if they don’t want to.) No more “I emailed you that report you wanted”, no email, no report, instead they’d simply know.

    Empathy, telepathy, shared consciousness.

  15. Modern neuroscience has revealed quite a bit about the way that our brains encode, store, and retrieve memories, and it is much more subtle than the breathless description that Kyle provides of the prospect of total recall. Rather than a giant databank of EVERYTHING, when new information is learned it is integrated with old memories, and this is the key to understanding, creativity, abstract thought, language, physical coordination, and much much more. The way this is thought to occur is that an old memory is recalled, and once this happens, the memory is no longer statically ‘stored’ but rather becomes labile. The new information is then integrated with the old, and a process of reconsolidation returns the memory to a stable state. [The reconsolidation step is thought to occur during sleep, so don't get too excited about overusing that modafinil.]

    Here is an example that I use when explaining this to our graduate students: stop reading for a moment, and think about one of your elementary school teachers. It doesn’t matter which one, just choose one.

    When you are finished recalling something (anything) about that teacher, read the next paragraph.

    Right now, that memory is no longer stable. [Sorry, I know, I am messing with your brain. And worse, I am doing so deliberately.]

    When you go to sleep tonight, you will reconsolidate that memory of your teacher. But it will be tied, loosely or strongly, to this discussion about memory consolidation. The more vividly you incorporate my comments, the stronger the connection. If you think about either the teacher or memory consolidation some weeks from now, there is a probability (not 100%, but greater than zero) that you will recall the other half of the equation. And if you do, that will induce another round of memory lability and reconsolidation, probably increasing the strength of the connection between the two again. And so on.

    As one meanders through life, some memories become strengthened while others fade into the background noise. It is likely that there will always be some molecular footprints for even the faintest of these, but their connections to current events is too weak to allow their recall. For example, if you are over 35, you probably have a hard time recalling the names of everyone in your third grade class. And frankly, why would you want to. Unless they are relevant to your existence today, in which case you would recall their names easily.

    As my example of third grade classmates illustrates, the process is adaptive to the real world in which we live. On the other hand, total recall is not. The fact is that we already have access to more ‘data’ than ever before in history. The challenge is not knowing things, but rather sorting through them to arrive at interesting and meaningful connections. It is not the case that a computer could not be designed to do that – there are many valuable algorithms out there – google’s search strategy comes to mind – but the advantages of having total recall of everything I have seen, felt, or heard in my life seems to me to be oversold. Perfect recall maybe the wrong thing to pursue.

  16. Brian Too

    @16 Peter,

    I’m not sure I agree. One of the great, under-appreciated strengths of current computer design is that they do not merely attempt to ape human beings. They are complementary to us, not supplementary.

    Of course this leads to some problems too. “Why doesn’t the machine understand what I mean?” and so forth. However computers buttress human beings where we do poorly (perfect retention of facts, potentially forever) while themselves being poor where we are strong (analysis, correlation, creativity).

    However for the most part computers are non-threatening because they are simultaneously alien and useful.

    @15 Paul,

    I think you are going a very large step beyond the article, into a massive shared memory system. Potentially very powerful and radical. It’s Borg-like aspects cannot be ignored though. This is likely to involve a huge shift into a shared consciousness with it’s attendant risks of loss of individuality.

  17. @ 17 Brian

    I think that my concern did not come across clearly (my fault, not yours), so let me try again. I completely understand that aping human neurobiology is not the objective of computer design. But in the the context of the article, we are talking about a brain having access to unprecedented amounts of information – to use Kyle’s words, ‘everything, always, and instantly’.

    The issue is this: if one has perfect recall of everything, can a brain use the information? It seems that the current mechanistic workings of the brain are limited to some degree, and includes a robust amount of forgetting. Rather than being a handicap, the system as currently construed allows for integration and, dare I say it, the unity of conscious thought. The challenge is knowing what happens when the database gets much much larger: does the integrative action break down, thereby paradoxically reducing rather than enhancing cognitive function? It is not that I am against having access to more information, but I have no interest in doing so if it is not going to improve matters. Much of the discussion of increasing memory seems to assume, rather glibly, that more is better, and much more is much better. What I am trying to suggest here is that there is a body of work in neurobiology which reasonably questions this premise.

    This is at once a serious engineering issue, an intriguing insight into the (presumed) adaptive advantages of the organization of our brains at present, and an insight with philosophical implications for the origins of consciousness and unity of thought.

  18. Medel

    It is doable. If the Borg can do it, then we certainly can. It’s just a matter of time.

  19. Maybe you want try it: http://www.mathfeats.com

    Have you been wondering certain things regarding the Brainetics Review Secrets exposed from the Human Calculator, Mike Byster? His Brainetics program include five DVDs, a Parents’ Guide book, a Playbook, Credit cards and Flash Cards is essential to actually comprehend the Brainetics secrets.

  20. Matthew Saunders

    Kyle Munkittrick, here’s a link to a youtube video of a lecture by Michael Persinger that is on topic and that you might enjoy, you transhumanist, you :)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9l6VPpDublg#at=79

    Also on topic, I remembered that one of my friends from the former Soviet Union took part in an experimental accelerated learning program where they started out by learning how to remember everything they did that day. My friend told me that the people who quit the program said they did so because they realized that most of their day was spent doing NOTHING. The program was stopped by the government before it got finished because the government was not able to figure out/was scared by students only having to take 6 months to finish a 4 year University program.

    So, I think with this type of cognitive enhancement, the above needs to be taken into account. It’s like…well, I really like Buddhism and what it teaches, but I don’t think a pill can be taken or some kind of machine can be made so that the fruits of Buddhism can be achieved…Buddhism has to be learned and experienced, mistakes made, etc etc.

    It’s like with poverty, I think it can be ‘solved’, but not with a pill but with a radical restructuring of our society (with all of us being involved and not just our policy makers).

  21. What I’d say is that it is one thing to be able to have more quick and immediat access to information. It’s another thing to actually process it, and yet another thing to respond with good judgment to it.

    I have a feeling there will always be a time lag involved with that, and involved in deciding where to go in terms of seeking out information.

    Having an internal digital assistant might speed some things up but not necessarily everything.

  22. Ultimately, the aim would be to extract that representation and project it so that researchers could see directly how a brain perceives the world.
    But as well as advancing neuroscience and philosophy, the Cybernetic brains project has other practical applications.

  23. Oscar Nash

    Interesting daydream. Nothing wrong with daydreams, of course. They are the source of every development. I’m in the process of publishing a novel I’ve written with almost exactly your premise. Sometimes I think that, if I don’t hurry with publication, it might be science history, instead of science fiction.
    I am optimistic that greater knowledge will lead to a more congenial society, less influenced by emotional bias. You show an example of your own bias by listing Glenn Beck as an example of an egregious liar, instead of the much more readily documented Barack Obama.

  24. Jojo

    If all info extant was available to everyone at anytime, then you wouldn’t need that accessory computer chip.

    But what you could use such a chip for would be to store every thought and every experience you ever have. Then if you die and the chip is recoverable, you can effectively be “re-lifed” and pick up where you left off. People would never really die.

    This is the main theme that the ‘Commonwealth’ SF novels by Peter F. Hamilton are built on. These novels are great space opera and I would recommend them to all SF readers. See:

    https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Commonwealth_Saga

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