04:59 AM

Guest Post: Making Forgetfulness A Distant Memory

[Guest post from Sunil Vemuri co-founder of reQall (www.reqall.com), a service available on iPhone and BlackBerry that's designed to improve your ability to remember. Mr Vemuri holds a Ph.D. from MIT's Media Lab, where his research on memory prosthesis inspired reQall.

By Sunil Vemuri

When IBM last listed its annual Five Innovations That Will Change Our Lives in the Next Five Years, it was satisfying - dare I suggest a little validating? - to see the computing giant acknowledge that "smart appliances" would usher in a new era of remembering with ease.

I'm happy to say that the future is here.

Memory tools are increasingly used by everyone from physicians compiling patient reminders to college students trying to keep tabs on midterms and keggers. Among the panoply of devices and services, which allows users to record a note to themselves via voice or electronic messaging to get reminded at the right time. While it's fun to speculate on how this might free up the time of some ground-breaking researcher trying to crack the grand unified theory, reQall and other such tools already have practical, everyday applications.

People suffering from such neurobehavioral conditions as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are fired from work because they forget instructions from supervisors. Slaves to the rush-hour commute seek out new, effective ways to optimize the time squandered in traffic. Everyone from CEOs to folks juggling multiple jobs to heads of households sweat the small stuff that crazed schedules demand. Memory tools have successfully addressed all these scenarios.

A decade ago, the vision for memory tools imagined a tableau of aids that went beyond remembering a grocery list or calling up directions to a hardware store. The notion of a computer that anticipates your needs, acts on your behalf and behaves as your virtual assistant was and still is the dream. The foundation for this is enhanced memory. Back then, that vision was far from fully realized with devices that barely had the informational capacity of today's digital address book. By comparison, an iPhone can sock away 32 gigabytes of data. We've gone from a smattering of hacked-up research devices to gadgets such as BlackBerrys -essentially network-connected computers - that are in the hands of millions.

Improvements in network connections and storage capacity have further opened the door, but expect developments in location-sensing technology - think global positioning system (GPS) - to do even more. Such a setup would easily upstage today's timed reminders by telling me when I need to recall something at a specific location. When my plane lands at the airport, a device will know the moment I arrive to remind me where I had parked my car.

The potential of memory tools is beyond dizzying. Researchers are developing a very primitive artificial neural interface that, in the most extreme of sci-fi visions, is akin to what the cybernetic Borg used in the "Star Trek" series. While we know our brains are limited in how fast they process information, this inchoate technology could theoretically make memory capacity infinite - or even improve memory vibrancy. If it could free up gray matter by processing information or sharing the responsibility of paying attention, it might allow us to step closer to ultimately understanding the true capacity of the human brain. If an improved memory, or at least a more effective means of addressing memory, can help us make better decisions, might that ultimately help us avoid conflict or even war?

The goal behind the development of memory tools is less about storing information and more about clearing the brush to find answers to historically intractable problems. If they can help brilliant scientists become even brighter, make the most dazzling visions become even more luminous, will that put us in the position to travel to the stars or cure cancer sooner?

But these gadgets are not just the product of speculation. They're here, they have practical applications for most anyone and they're becoming increasingly sophisticated. Memory tools in the end will help us pay attention to the little things while allowing us to focus on larger, more pressing matters. And that's something worth remembering.