Memory Can be Enhanced, Manipulated, and Edited. Will the Future of Memory be Ethical?
In The Future Of, we unpack technology’s growing influence on our lives to answer the pressing question — What lies ahead?
“In the future, you’ll be able to save and replay memories… You could potentially download them into a new body or into a robot body. The future’s going to be weird,” said Elon Musk at a Neuralink presentation in 2020.
Neuralink, Musk’s brain-computer interface company, recently sought approval to begin human clinical trials in 2023 and hopes to implant the first chip in a human brain within six months. According to Musk, who plans to eventually get one of these microchips embedded in his own brain, the technology may one day allow us to control our memories.
However, these claims around technological manipulation and enhancement of human memory, which at this point fall more in the realm of dystopian science fiction than reality, could also have far-reaching ethical implications for personal autonomy. With a bulk of research on memory manipulation technology falling within the corporate domain, do our future selves run the risk of turning our memories, and eventually personhood, into data that fuels business ventures? Further, such tech could accentuate the socio-economic barriers that divide society today, while potentially changing the nature of human memory itself.
Some neuroscientists believe this is already taking place, as our overdependence on technology erodes our ability to remember – a phenomenon that is being called “digital amnesia.” “Outsourcing” simple tasks to our devices, such as navigating the route to our homes and offices or even remembering a family recipe, while multitasking on our smartphones that distract us from the present moment can ultimately impair our ability to retain information. The convenience that technology offers comes with a price, according to professor Oliver Hardt, who studies the neurobiology of memory and forgetting. Hardt predicts that the overreliance on our devices may even increase the risk of dementia.
“The less you use that mind of yours, the less you use the systems that are responsible for complicated things like episodic memories, or cognitive flexibility, the more likely it is to develop dementia,” said Hardt.
Although neuroscientists have been able to decode some of the mystery that surrounds memory formation over time, a lot remains unknown still. Thus, Musk’s claims of being able to download one’s consciousness and “back up” one’s memories seem far-fetched to researchers.
“Not to say that that won’t happen, but I think that the underlying neuroscience is much more shaky. We understand much less about how those processes work in the brain…” said Andrew Jackson, a professor of neural interfaces at Newcastle University.
While many echo Jackson’s doubts, others continue to research ways to advance memory enhancement, all the while asking: What can be made possible when technology meets human memory? But perhaps a more important question is: What happens if this is made possible?
A memory-boosting brain implant is one such example. In 2018, two groups of researchers managed to restore memory function in people with epilepsy using electrical stimulation. “The big story here is decoding: We’ve finally been able to harness the big data of the human brain…” Dr. Michael Kahana of the University of Pennsylvania told NBC News.
This implant, or “memory prosthesis,” works something like this: The researchers recorded the formation of a memory in an undamaged region of the brain. They then used that as a template to determine what the damaged part of the brain should be doing to encode new memories. Electrodes were then used to stimulate this damaged region to restore normal functioning, reported CNN.
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While a commercial memory prosthesis is still a while away, the fact that this technology has been successful in humans is a path-breaking development. Brain implants could have undeniable benefits in the space of healthcare, especially for the treatment of individuals living with memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s or memory impairment caused by traumatic brain injuries.
Artificially enhancing memories, however, poses ethical dilemmas for future generations. For one, enhancement treatment of any sort could amplify memories of traumatic events as well, leading to stronger “overgeneralized fear memory” that leads to anxiety disorders. Dr. Heather Berlin, a cognitive scientist at the Icahn School of Medicine, listed a few other issues: “Will neural implants lead to two classes of citizens, enhanced and unenhanced? What if someone can hack into your implant and influence your thoughts and behaviors?” There are no easy answers to any of these.
Memory manipulation and artificial memories
Neuroscientists Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu were the first to demonstrate that it is not only possible to reactivate memories but also to implant a false memory in the brains of mice. To do this, they shocked a mouse in the foot, while using light to activate the memory of a previous neutral environment. When the mouse was placed back in the box where it had not been shocked, it still exhibited fearful behavior – proof of an artificial memory. “The animals were fearful of an environment that, technically speaking, never had anything ‘bad’ happen in it,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez and Liu have also been experimenting to see if positive memories can be enhanced while traumatic memories are dampened. Admittedly, memory manipulation technology has so far only been tested in animal models. If its applicability in humans is discovered, it could lead to positive interventions for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions. However, Ramirez warns against unnecessary sensationalism, stating, “There are so many leaps and bounds that have to be done from working in mice to in humans, and that’s not including the ethical ramifications of it.” However, the technology is possible “in principle,” raising concerns for the future of human memory.
Some believe that our memories – however fallible they may be – play a role in shaping our worldviews and our perception of ourselves. Research shows that our personal narratives are constructed based on a subconscious cherry-picking of memories. Further selective manipulation of memories then could have vast implications for how “people consciously construct their notion of self, and how they adhere to social norms,” according to a 2016 paper in the AMA Journal of Ethics.
Therefore, if Ramirez and Liu’s experiment is translated to humans in the distant future, there is wide potential for misuse. Memory manipulation could also easily become a tool of torture and control. Ramirez is well aware of these cons but told Motherboard, “[W]e can do the same thing to activate positive memories and updating the contents of a neutral memory with positive stimuli. It can work in both directions.”
Ultimately, who has access to this technology may influence how it is used. It is not too difficult to imagine a hypothetical scenario in which this tool lies in the hands of an authoritarian state or in those of corporations, where it could be used to augment surveillance systems to either suppress dissent or turn our innermost thoughts into data that drives profit.
The intention with which these technologies are designed are then an important consideration to factor in. Ramirez, for example, told Motherboard it should stay within the medical fraternity. “If this ever becomes a thing… ideally we’ll keep it in the realm of medicine, in the context of disorders of the brain.” However, there are others like Bryan Johnson, the CEO of a neurotech company known as Kernel that is working on a memory prosthesis, who wants to make this technology available to “billions of people.”
“If you contemplate a scenario where I’m enhanced and you are not… or my child is enhanced and yours is not—it’s an intolerable state,” Johnson told Motherboard, going so far as to say that a highly profitable market centered around human intelligence is emerging. This raises the possibility of such memory manipulation technology creating new hierarchies and inequities or accentuating the ones already in place. Even its potential to treat neurological disorders could lead to a scenario similar to the one we see playing out today, where access to healthcare is being determined by income status and social inequalities. As most of this technology is being designed with clinical applications in mind, there are potential risks of invasive procedures and possible long-term impacts of brain implants that map and modulate neurological functioning that we have no way of knowing at present.
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Preserving memories for “digital immortality”
“Mind uploading,” or the idea of transferring a person’s consciousness to a computer simulation, has recently become a popular topic of discussion, especially among Silicon Valley developers. While the concept is still only a hypothesis today, futurists are nonetheless working on technology that can allow a person’s memories to live on online.
In a way, we are already uploading, and even curating, our memories by recording precious moments via photographs and videos, creating digital footprints that will long outlive us all. Is it possible then to preserve our actual memories, and therefore identities, after we are dead? The creators of Eterni.me, a website attempting to create a “digital clone” of a person, say yes.
While corporations already maintain extensive digital records of everything we do on the Internet in order to use that information to build a version of who we are, Eterni.me pushes this one step further. According to BBC Future, a person who wishes to preserve themselves and “avoid being totally forgotten” must give this company access to their social media, email accounts, geo-location, and search history. All of this information is eventually transferred to a digital avatar – which co-creator Marius Ursache calls an “artificially intelligent biographer” – that replicates the person’s appearance and personality. The more you interact with the avatar, the better it will be able to mimic you after your death.
“Our end goal is to … create a library of human memories,” Ursache wrote, while adding that the technology would take many years to build.
An important question raised here is to what extent is a digital representation or archive of our memories interchangeable with our real selves? As BBC Future noted, a “simulation is a mere approximation of a person” and “the act of recording one’s life… is a selective process… Details can be tweaked, emphases can be altered, entire relationships can be erased if it suits one’s current circumstances. We often give, in other words, an unreliable account of ourselves.”
As with all other technology surrounding human memory, there are privacy concerns attached to this too. Not to mention moral challenges and a debate about whether a digital replica warrants legal rights – all of which are wholly unfamiliar ethical conundrums experts are yet to definitively unpack.
As neuroscientific research continues to discover more about the nature of memory, experts say this progress will need to be foregrounded by ethical frameworks that guide this research, and its applications, in a responsible direction.