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Googling Your Brain: IBM Says You Will

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Memories, deep in the corners of my mind…

Misty watercolor memories of the way we were…


Have you ever forgotten your lover’s birthday?  Have you ever forgotten an appointment? Have you ever, while briefing your boss about a project, forgotten your most important point?

Memory is notoriously unreliable. In the future, though, you may not need to rely on it. Machines will handle memory for you.

IBM has patented what it calls an “automatic Google for the mind”, an algorithm that could track your conversations and acts, discern what you intend, and offer suggestions when you seem to be lost. Dr. James Kozlowski, a computational neuroscientist for IBM Research, heads the project. He says that his company’s new ‘cognitive digital assistant’ was developed for people with severe memory impairment. However, it could help all of us with brainstorming, research, overcoming memory lapses, and forming innovative connections.

IBM’s “brain googling app” addresses the most common cause of memory failure: lack of context. For most of us, memory is linked to a series of events. If we remember one aspect of an experience, we can more easily recall others. Your memory of a friend’s party, for example, links several elements: where you were, who was there, what you ate, what you drank, and what was said. Memory is adding missing pieces to a puzzle. If you can’t find the first piece, though, you probably can’t find the others.

We already have aids to memory: contact lists, task lists, scheduling apps, and alarms. They’re useless, though, if we forget to update them. or to consult them in the first place.

Kozlowski says he has found the solution to our memory problems. His AI app models our behaviors and memories. It listens to our conversations, studies our actions, and infers from our behavior and speech patterns what we intend, and when we need help. It then will offer educated guesses about what we want to know, filling in names and biographical data subtly, and within milliseconds. By studying your idiosyncrasies, it will know what behavior is normal for you,  and when you need help. If you’re trying to remember a particular word, for example, the ‘brain googling app’ could sense where your conversation paused. From your previous conversations, internet surfing, and use of social media, it could suggest words you may have been fishing for.

If you call a casual acquaintance, the ‘brain googling app’ knows the number you dialed, based on the dial tone or the movements of your wrist. It then will know whom you’re calling. It will find photos, conversations, and social media posts involving that person. It can remind you by text, e-mail, or through an earpiece about recent events in his life. The information will be ready for you before the other party picks up the phone.

IBM’s ‘brain googling app’ may be especially useful for Alzheimer’s and brain injury patients. It would not only offer reminders, it could track the rate of cognitive decline.

Could ‘googling the brain’ have a sinister side? Your digital assistant may know nearly everything about you: your contacts,your interests, your habits, and even the way you think. Couldn’t this information ruin your life if it falls into the wrong hands? Kozlowski says that he anticipated this possibility, and built robust security functions into the app. “The invention includes security mechanisms to preserve the privacy of the user or patient”, he said. “For example, the system can be configured to share data only with certain individuals, or only to access an electronic living will of the patient in order to determine who should have access if the user is no longer able to communicate this information.”  Do you feel better now?

‘Googling the brain’ may not become commonplace for several years, and IBM’s cognitive digital assistant might not be the dominant tool for it. Still, it’s likely that digital memory assistance will one day be as commonplace as our cell phones are now.

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