Memory

Planned, written and edited in a forty minute time limit using the following quotes as inspiration: 1. Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.

2. Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.

3. There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth

4. Memory is the fourth dimension to any landscape.


Memory is an integral part of the human experience. We celebrate it in our loved ones with their ability to remember key experiences and dates about our lives. We reward it in our workplaces, by greatly compensating those who can remember details and facts that will allow a company to function better. Great minds are everywhere, and it often all pivots off an excellent memory being utilised in one way or another. But for me, reflecting upon and understanding the human mind and how it is influenced by our memory instills in me great apprehension and worry about our future.

I remember sitting at my desk in my late teens studying for one of my first university exams. The topic was human anatomy and physiology. An elegant topic from an examination perspective because you are truly unable to just “wing it”, as was recognised amongst my peers at the time as an acceptable exam strategy for other units. Anatomy requires the power of raw memory, you either know the content or you don’t. There is no half right answer and unless you have a strong foundation in both greek and latin, you are probably not going to guess the answer. So there I sat, trying to commit to memory the various muscles, associated tendons and their insertion points on each bone, as well as a plethora of other specifics about the musculoskeletal system. It was an arduous task that I thought I had invested a respectable amount of time into. Yet on examination day, after a poor anxiety riddled sleep, my memory failed me. I forgot much of the material in front of me despite covering it multiple times over the preceding weeks. I just couldn’t remember.


I passed the exam, however I couldn’t stop thinking about how delicate and fallible my memory truly was. I carried these sentiments through my studies and into my career in healthcare, where the crowning position on the hierarchy is held by those who are qualified as doctors; people who are generally thought to have exceptional memories. I remember having a discussion with a doctor in the early hours of one morning about a nuanced topic after I assume both of us had been awake for nearly twenty four hours. Her recollection was still exceptional for someone who had been spontaneously prompted with a question, but having read up on the topic just minutes prior I saw some errors in what she was saying. It was as though she had a picture in her mind’s eye that once upon a time was crystal clear, but fatigue and time had rendered it blurry, out of focus and difficult to interpret. This stuck with me for sometime afterward and within me grew an unshakable worry about my utility in the workplace. If even those of us who have the best memories are vulnerable to something as ephemeral as lack of sleep, how are we ever going to compete with the growing threat of automation and machine intelligence inching its way into industry?


Machines don’t forget. They don’t tire. They don’t need sleep. And now they often don’t need a human to tell them what to learn. Artificial intelligence will remove the need for many people who are trained into positions that require an excellent memory. Why have a human working as a doctor on a night-shift when he or she is going to fall victim to the cognitive deterioration brought about by lack of sleep. A machine will always be able to have a comprehensive, completely accurate discussion with me about any and every topic that I may have at any time. Furthermore, should I be bilingual, the machine will be able to change languages without falter. Machines are already many magnitudes better at memory than we ever will be, and they are only getting better.


I’m not the first person to struggle with this realisation. Billionaire owner of Tesla and Space-X Elon Musk has been very vocal about his concerns with the exponentially growing competence of machines and artificial intelligence software. He echoes many of the same sentiments as myself in that the human mind is limited by its memory and its ‘bandwidth’, to use a more computo-centric term. His solution is to improve upon the human mind with the introduction of a product called Neuralink. An implantable device that will leverage the power of the internet, artificial intelligence and the human brain, creating a symbiotic relationship between the three, and improving upon our human brain. Such a device has not been received without scepticism though, particularly in those who still think of a computer as nothing more than a glorified type-writer and the internet a place where the youth congregate to connive about their ever changing social and political agenda. Ironically, these are the same people who are now face to face with the inevitable decline in memory that comes with advanced age.


I, on the other hand, welcome the introduction of brain-machine interfaces. Brain development is written into our history. As did the development of our brains move us from our primate ancestors, the introduction of artificial/human brain interfaces will herald the dawn of a new species of human. One that is not handicapped by the fragility of memory, or our dialup internet paced bandwidth. And the day that is realised will be one to remember.