Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I forget, therefore I am

Let me confess in an understatement: I am not known for my ability to remember. I think I have what could be described as 'working memory' ('RAM' in geek-speak) and very less of the 'long term memory' (the hard-disk type). It is therefore fascinating for me to hear some of my friends rattle out the titles of the books (and even chapter captions!) they studied in 5th grade!

I have been trying to find out more about the way our brain stores information for a long time and have stumbled across many interesting insights. Disclaimers: I'm no neuro-scientist and no one claims to have completely unlocked the mysteries of the mind.

The first insight is that perfect memory is nearly impossible. Its something like this: Imagine our sense organs are digital transducers and that to each frame of sight, sound, smell and touch captured, the brain does some DSP and attaches contexts. These contexts act like keys that could be cross-linked to other such similar contexts. In the cyber-world, a simplistic equivalent would be intelligent tag-labels that could be attached to each piece of media on the web. And like the tag-clouds or page-ranking on the web, the brain keeps analyzing and attaching weights to these keys. I guess each person normally has the ability to assimilate only a certain maximum number of such keys in the top of the stack. Therefore, keys which have a lower relative weight might get pushed way down to a point that they become non-addressable. Thus, to recall information that has been stored in the brain that has its keys obscured in a huge bin of decrepit keys might be really difficult (though for arguments sake- not entirely impossible).

Techniques that claim to improve memory (eg: mnemonics) actually attempt to attach contexts with higher weight to chunks of information that might otherwise considered mundane- providing easier proxy addresses in a way.

There are exceptions though. Savants with Eidic Memory. There are certain differently talented people whose brains are mysteriously wired to have near perfect or photographic memories. The interesting part is that perfect memory is not as good as it seems (getting perfect scores in all tests sounds pretty cool though). Interesting read (long story) : Autism's First Child. The ability of human beings to forget is an inherent 'ability' and not a weakness. As human beings, we need to be able to forget, forgive and move on. If I had the ability to remember everything, I would probably be stuck in a rut and caught in an endless loop of ecstasy or despair- depending on the nature of some immediate trigger. That would be one extreme of being extremely 'experienced', where previous slightly negative experiences would posture our current actions through 'safe' and non-risky paths. It could kill the adventurer, the risk taker, the para-jumper and the entrepreneur in a person, it could kill the appetite for trying again after repeated failures. Imagine losing something very precious and not being able to forget about it! It would be like having a thousand phantom limbs.

That brings me to an inherent flaw in most computing solution designs. Most computers, networks, devices and robots are designed for perfect memory- more so because the cost of storage is decreasing drastically day by day and its easier to just keep adding up. So if I snap a photograph on my smartphone today and sync it up to my web album- that image is there to stay- forever. If that snap were a part of a bot's learning algorithm, it would be as retrievable a hundred years down as it is now. Google, for instance, will remember all my correspondences, my web interactions and profile for a very long time. I think there is an opportunity in trying to adopt into software systems, human-like methods for forgetting information.

Social web could also benefit a lot by trying to mimic human forgetting systems to tune their privacy settings. Google for instance today stores one's search memory for only N months- now thats a crude way to forget, it must be a lot smarter in what it needs to conveniently forget. A system designed to thus conveniently forget will meet both privacy concerns (to an extent) as well as being functional in a more 'human' way.

Thats the end of my rhetoric that brings me back to me. In conclusion, I do believe, that my ability to forget defines me, my thoughts and my deeds as much as it uniquely defines you! I guess the machines too would follow our forgetfulness in due course :)