Why computer memory can’t fully compete with human brains

If we could all think more like Google, maybe we wouldn’t need Google.

This week’s issue of the New York Times Magazine features an article by Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University and the author of “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.” As part of the magazine’s regular “Idea Lab” feature, he explores the concept of neural implants that could behave more like search engines, significantly boosting the performance of our short-term memory by adding another layer to our thought processes.

As Marcus points out, humans tend to rely on cue-based memories – we think about what we were doing when we met someone in order to recall their name, for example – while computers retrieve information based on the location of that information.

“However difficult the practicalities, there’s no reason in principle why a future generation of neural prostheticists couldn’t pick up where nature left off, incorporating Google-like master maps into neural implants,” Marcus writes. “This in turn would allow us to search our own memories — not just those on the Web — with something like the efficiency and reliability of a computer search engine.”

Well, maybe. In part this notion presupposes that computers and search engines do a great job of both location mapping and associating with the right clues. For the most part, technology’s success with the latter is rather limited. Keywords are probably the easiest example of cue-based memory structures making their way into computers, but as semantics evolve they’re hardly the best option. Marcus, in contrast, notes the much more idiosyncratic – and therefore dynamic – approach taken by human beings.

“Our mood, our environment, even our posture can all influence our delicate memories. To take but one example, studies suggest that if you learn a word while you happen to be slouching, you’ll be better able to remember that word at a later time if you are slouching than if you happen to be standing upright,” he says.

Of course, if we’re merely adding Google-type master maps to our already sophisticated natural cue-based memories, there shouldn’t be any issues. It’s just that search tends to follow a fairly consistent pattern: once we understand how search works, everyone tries to find a workaround to serve their own interests. That’s why search engine optimization is becoming such a growth industry, and why Google keeps having to rewrite the algorithms that choose where results end up.

I’m not suggesting advertisers would somehow try to take over our brains to influence our cue-based memories. They’d simply pay whatever they needed to pay to get a good understanding of how the artificial side of our intelligence worked, then tweak their messaging accordingly. We might remember better or more reliably, but some memories may take precedence over others. Bad enough that we have to think about page rank today. Does anyone want to worry about “memory rank” tomorrow?

Intelligence is not just a matter of recall. It’s about filtering through memories, adding context and using mysterious forces of intuition to make decisions. Computers are great tools, but despite all the advancements we’ve made, there are parts of us that contain the kind of search engine Google only wishes it could build.

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