The Rubicon of Memory

If there’s any technological advance that represents the compete change in all aspects of culture, economics, politics, etc., it’s the ability to synthesize memory into and out of a human being. Since every cell in our bodies is “new” (90% within a year, the rest not long after), the one thing people hold onto in terms of who they actually are as individuals are memories. We are that which we have lived – memory encapsulates our all experiences, is the basis of our thoughts and what we draw upon for emotions. That said, memories have predictable (if complex) patterns which can be replicated. Although they represent the fundamental elements that make us uniquely who we are, they can be understood simply as large datasets.

An amazing thrust of current research is an implanted neural device (into the hippocampus) that can restore individual’s ability to form new memories and access previously formed ones. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is collaborating with UCLA and Medronic to offer a viable way forward for those suffering traumatic brain injuries and Alzheimer’s disease with an aim to begin clinical testing in 2017. They’re extending existing research to analyze and decode neural signals and through targeted simulation, help reestablish the ability to encode memories for those suffering brain injuries or degenerative diseases. In essence, the initiative would allow people to “reboot” key memories like events, times, places, and people. Researchers at MIT have been able to successfully inject false memories into mice. This vein of research – soon to be ported to primates – will allow researchers insights as per why we have false memories and what conditions lead to the formation of memories. 

The intriguing aspect of these (and other) initiatives is that an implanted memory will be recognized as legitimate by the brain. Taken at face value, if the concept of memory could be fully understood, then memories – real or artificial in origin – could be both assimilated and exported. Think of that a moment – you’d not know what portion of who you are is legitimate, since artificial memories are just as valid as genuine ones. They’ll be acted upon the same, and experience the same fundamental entropy as other memories. There’s some speculation as per why there’s memory degradation in the first place: A panel of brain researchers I spoke to explained that your mind selectively “deletes” data – almost as though its a hard drive, overwriting sectors of memories, thus overtime, they become less sharp. One theory is that this entropy represents an evolutionary advantage, allowing our species to avoid getting paralyzed with negative experiences or saturated with unimportant data. 

At SXSW this year, I asked a panel about whether there were any concerns with creating the equivalent of a technocaste – after all, who wouldn’t prefer an employee/leader who could synthesize and apply entire disciplines of knowledge in an afternoon? Their answer was both bleak and hopeful. Yes, there’d be a great imbalance for a couple of generations, but perhaps the ability to share memories would allow us to escape the trap of the lizard brain and actually show true empathy between one another, between cultures, and even religions. One panelist quickly followed up with a reminder that six years ago the president of the United States didn’t have access to the tech commonly found today in the poorest regions of the world today. 

A very real concern this vein of memory manipulation research opens up is that when memories or brain patterns as fundamental as thoughts can be augmented, it might lead to a kind of social eugenics. Initiatives to rewire psychopaths, purge traumatic memories, or target mental traits deemed undesirable could be our cultural legacy. Taking one (very large) step back in perspective, the countless memories that compose the very nature of who we are are just data running on wetware. Big Data. Accessed by increasingly intelligent algorithms or AI, it’s conceivable that a copy of you could be exported and run in a persistent state simulation. This has fairly dramatic implications for both the concept of self, immortality, and even the notion of death. (Your descendants could theoretically have conversations with “you” long after your bones are dust). 

Once the Rubicon of memory has been crossed, it will change the very nature of our cultures and myriad of dynamics therein. We will need to start asking – and answering – fundamental questions on what we will do with this newfound ability to acquire unearned memories or augment existing ones. The genre has almost limitless opportunities to generate compassion and empathy between both individuals and cultures. The flip side is that there are boundless opportunities for accelerated inequity, devaluing experiences/interactions, or promoting transgressions against human rights. Perhaps there will come a time in the near future when you utter the words, “I know kung fu”, but it will begs the question: what sort of world would you fight for?

Photo: morgueFile