What Will Happen When Robots Store All Our Memories

In an excerpt from his new book Talking to Robots, David Ewing Duncan imagines looking back from a future where memories can be permanently stored with the help of a technology called Memory Bot based on an actual conversation he had with Ken Goldberg, Tiffany Shlain, and Odessa Shlain Goldberg.

Yes, there really was a time when people were expected to preserve memories on their own. A time when you would share with your four-year-old daughter a stunning sunset and it wouldn’t be automatically recorded as a neural-meme. You felt so very close to your little one and she to you, only to have that moment vanish forever. Maybe you took a selfie, but that never really captured the whole experience.

Then came Memory Bot, with its revolutionary Quantum Meme Vector® technology. Created in the future by a husband and wife and their daughter — UC Berkeley roboticist Ken Goldberg, the filmmaker-raconteur Tiffany Shlain, and the future entrepreneur and philosopher Odessa Shlain Goldberg, respectively — Memory Bot was for years the most popular gift ever during the holiday shopping season, even more popular than Teddy Bots. Memory Bot remembered everything that you wanted it to: sunsets with your daughter, your grandson’s bar mitzvah, the birth of your puppy, your promotion at work (before you were replaced by a robot), and on and on.

It all began in a free-ranging conversation in the Shlain Goldberg living room in Marin County, California, way back in 2018. That’s when Ken, Tiffany, and Odessa, who was then14 years old, were sitting quietly late one afternoon chatting about robots, technology, and memory. Ken Goldberg was the first in the family to mention the idea of a memory bot for older people to remember their lives, though the concept soon expanded to a mem bot for everyone. “In some sense, it will be something that is completely focused on gathering your most important memories, those you want to remember, and to have access to, with all the experiences and connections you had throughout life.”

“I think a version of this is actually doable now,” he added, speaking as a Berkeley robotics professor who knew a lot about this stuff. “You could mine the vast amount of information that’s online about each of us. You could have your emails traced through your entire life, and your messages, and your images, et cetera. Then the A.I. can do associative memory, so it’s constantly making associations: linking to the news you read, online searches, and anything that you have connected to. ‘Hey, remember when this thing happened? Remember when that happened?’”

Well, yeah, except that this data could be used less benevolently by advertisers, trolls, pols, and would-be world dictators trying to sell you something or to unduly influence you. But let’s keep going.

“Maybe this is one of the optional settings that you have with Memory Bot. It sounds horrible, but maybe you set it on real versus idealized.”

“I think … a problem, especially at the end of life,” he continued, “[is] when you’d like to remember things, but you forget, and maybe so does your partner, if you’re lucky and have one.”

“Wait a second,” said Tiffany. “You often hear about older people getting in a depressive loop because they’re not remembering the right things. I think what Ken is talking about is that you have some sort of Memory Bot that reminds you of all the most beautiful things and moments of your life.”

“Because of my East Coast background, I guess, I like the idea of some bad news, because you need to know that, too,” said Ken. “It’s almost that you would be faking out yourself, that your life had been better than it was. I guess there can be an idealized version, maybe this is one of the optional settings that you have with Memory Bot. It sounds horrible, but maybe you set it on real versus idealized.”

“One kind of offshoot of this idea,” Tiffany said, “which I do think would be really interesting is — there’s so much I’d love to know about my grandparents. I have scraps of photos and recollections from relatives. If there was a bot that could truly reconstruct your email, your photos, really give you a 360-degree view, so a great-grandchild could say, ‘Well, what was Great-Grandpa Zeide-Ken really excited about or worried about?’ They could reconstruct who their parents or their grandparents were, to try to understand them better.”

“They could use their text patterns to have actual conversations generated by the robot that knows so much about the person,” said Odessa.

“I wish I could do that with my father,” said Tiffany, referring to the physician and author Leonard Shlain, who died in 2009. “Sometimes I go into my inbox and I surf something out, and I see one of his emails. He’s like, ‘Hey, Babe,’ and he says these little things. I’ve often thought if you could make this composite of the voicemails he used to leave me, or the emails, and some home video, and lectures, you really could — thinking of the future generation using email, Facebook, and Twitter and whatever future platforms that will inevitably appear — you could create this portrayal of who they were that you could tap into.”

“Maybe the fear of death would change in our society,” said Odessa. “There’s not that mourning period, because you’d never really die.”

“There was a guy I know, and Facebook kept showing memories of his daughter who had died,” said Tiffany. “He finally just canceled, he couldn’t bear it, because she kept appearing even though he tried to expunge her from his account. But Facebook wouldn’t let her die. Who gets access to that? We know that in the digital world almost anything that appeared somewhere doesn’t ever go away.”

For a moment, the family went silent as they absorbed this. Then Odessa raised another important point: “You’ll have people who didn’t have a very good life,” said Odessa. “Maybe they became refugees.”

“Or they were abused,” said Tiffany, “or were drug addicts.”

“I’m not saying they have to take in all of these memories,” said Ken. “I think a lot of empathy has to be evolved into this kind of a situation. Memory Bot has to understand what’s going to work for you, and certainly not to bring up something that’s going to traumatize you.”

To this, Odessa sighed and said, “Maybe there will be times when we just want to turn off the Memory Bot, to let our minds rest and remember things without [a machine],” which made this 14-year-old’s mother and father smile. That’s because the Shlain Goldbergs already practiced something back in the 2010s that they called a “Tech Shabbat,” a weekly break from using technology that they had adapted from the Jewish Sabbath. Not because they were religious, but to take some time off from their machines to reconnect with their family and friends and with themselves.

When the first Memory Bot — the MemBot z2000 — was launched, it was a huge sensation. Older people loved how it bathed them in mostly glowing — but also in some difficult but important — memories of their life. Kids loved it too, as they chatted with great-grandparents and ancestors long dead, almost like they were still alive. Soon after, the MemBot z2000 Plus upgrade included the option to reconstruct from a person’s digital trail a loved one who had died without leaving a mem bot record of their own — a son or daughter, or parent, or best friend.

The first mem bot companies, including one founded by Odessa Shlain Goldberg after she grew up and became a philosopher and entrepreneur, included holo-dashboards that allowed mem bot customers to designate what they wanted to remember or forget. Or to half forget, or one-quarter forget a memory inputted into a mem bot’s Quantum Meme Vector® system. People could also turn up or turn down the machine’s softening and nostalgia vectors or adjust the balance of positive and negative memories whenever they wanted to.

Of course, there were those who believed that memories should never be erased or edited, even people who had suffered horrors and atrocities. “We need to remember when evil occurs,” these purists insisted, “so that they will not be repeated.”

And let’s not even get into law enforcement, which demanded access to unexpurgated memories of anyone who witnessed a crime committed or allegedly committed a crime themselves. Eventually abuses by the police spurred the World Congress to pass the Private Memory Protection Act.

Another unexpected consequence was the scourge of mem addiction. This happened when people became so obsessed and distracted by all the memories, and with conversing with all the dead people, that they neglected to create new memories. Some even lost their jobs and ended up aimlessly roaming the streets, muttering questions to a long-dead great-grandmother or distant ancestor.

Just when things in the future seemed to be getting out of hand, Odessa Shlain Goldberg (as an adult) proposed a solution: the whole world should try taking a Shabbat-like day each week where they put away their machines, including Memory Bot. Slowly, though, through adopting Tech Shabbats and a general dialing-down of the use of gadgets and bots, humanity learned to keep things in balance between memories and reality. Sadly, some people continued to suffer from memory addiction, and there never seemed to be enough beds in memory detox clinics to accommodate them.

Mostly, though, Memory Bots became routine and part of the social fabric of the future as controversies faded, laws and regulations were refined to curb abuses and maximize safe usage, and people became intrigued and distracted by the latest new gadget that was going to wow them, then scare them, and then become routine.

In the old Shlain Goldberg house in Marin County, you could still find Ken, or the essence and memories of Ken, captured inside an eight-inch-tall black cylindrical tube on the kitchen counter that looked remarkably like an ancient Alexa. (Sadly, Ken, as well as Tiffany, had just missed the advent of longevity tech that allowed their daughter to live thousands of years and counting.) Except that Ken-Alexa had a swivel head that was constantly recording everything, with the positive-negative filter still set right where Ken had left it, in the middle of the dial. Even when Odessa was centuries old but still looked the same as she did when she was 25, she could talk to her dad, and ask him questions, and hear him laugh.

Original post: https://onezero.medium.com/what-will-happen-when-robots-store-all-our-memories-20ca1ddaf4d0

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