Friday, April 18, 2008

Memory Chips For Humans?

Ever considered having a memory chip implanted in your head? As much as I would want one, I've never given it serious thought, but one psychology professor does not think implanted memory chips are so far-fetched. Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University, argues that we suffer a severe deficit in how we retrieve memories relative to what is possible:

All this becomes even more poignant when you compare our memories to those of the average laptop. Whereas it takes the average human child weeks or even months or years to memorize something as simple as a multiplication table, any modern computer can memorize any table in an instant — and never forget it. Why can’t we do the same?

Much of the difference lies in the basic organization of memory. Computers organize everything they store according to physical or logical locations, with each bit stored in a specific place according to some sort of master map, but we have no idea where anything in our brains is stored. We retrieve information not by knowing where it is but by using cues or clues that hint at what we are looking for.

But, of course, the idea of some kind of androidization of human beings is off-putting. Dr. Marcus feels differently:
Would this turn us into computers? Not at all. A neural implant equipped with a master memory map wouldn’t impair our capacity to think, or to feel, to love or to laugh; it wouldn’t change the nature of what we chose to remember; and it wouldn’t necessarily even expand the sheer size of our memory banks. But then again our problem has never been how much information we could store in our memories; it’s always been in getting that information back out — which is precisely where taking a clue from computer memory could help.
That makes some sense, but sometimes, our ability to forget also serves a protective purpose, by insulating us from memories of unpleasant experiences, for example. By doing so, our forgetfulness to some degree allows us to attempt things that may not have been so pleasant the first time around. Plus, how do you feel when someone remembers everything a little bit too well? Frankly, it can be a bit annoying. Memory chips may work well with computers, but I am not sure how well humans would truly fare with them.

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