How Technology Could Save You From Ever Forgetting Anything Important Again

The quest to build better people.
March 7 2013 8:16 AM

The Memex in Your Pocket

How technology is expanding our minds.

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Our own brains are brilliant at storing and retrieving information that’s viscerally important to us, like the smile of someone we love or the smell of a food that made us sick, explains Maureen Ritchey, a postdoctoral researcher at U.C.–Davis who specializes in the neuroscience of memory. But they’re prone to bungle abstract details like the title of a book we wanted to read or the errand we were supposed to run on the way home from work.

Notepads, calendars, and Rolodexes were once the preferred tools to fill those gaps. But those technologies were deeply flawed. “Whoever designed the address book totally didn’t think through the cognitive science of how remembering people works,” says Phil Libin, Evernote’s CEO. “The brain does not remember people alphabetically based on their name.” His solution: Evernote Hello, an app that stores photos of people’s faces and records of where and when you met them along with their contact information. If you can’t recall their name later on, you can ask Evernote to instead show you the faces of all the people you met at that conference last month in Indianapolis.

Other Evernote apps let you take notes via text, audio, video, or Web clipping and look them up later by title, date, location, or full text search, so you don't have to remember their titles or file them into categories. A browser widget called Evernote Web Clipper supplements traditional Web search by scanning your personal notes simultaneously when you look something up on Google. Evernote Food specializes in food photos and recipes.

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Evernote, of course, is just one example of a cloud-based mobile app that gives you new ways to retrieve useful information that a Google search wouldn't find. Soundhound or Shazam can "listen" to a few seconds of a song playing on the radio and tell you the name of the band, the album, and all the lyrics. Checkmark can sense when you drive past the post office and shoot you an alert to drop off that package you've been carrying around in your trunk.

So where were you on that February night three years ago? If you use a modern email program like Gmail, there's a good chance you can piece it together by calling up your emails from that date. Which of your friends could you crash with or call up for a drink when you visit New York this summer? That's what Facebook's new Graph Search is for. See? Your memory is better than you think.

That might sound like a lot of a lot of apps to keep track of, even if they are all just a swipe and a click away on your mobile phone. And while information retrieval is getting easier, you still have to remember to enter the information in the first place. Those are exactly the problems that future generations of mobile software will attempt to solve.

Microsoft’s MyLifeBits project was a radical early attempt at seamless and comprehensive information storage, inspired by Vannevar Bush’s 1945 vision of the memex. The memex, Bush wrote in a stunningly prescient article in the Atlantic Monthly, “is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.” Bill Gates embraced an updated version of this prediction in his 1996 book The Road Ahead. After reading both works, Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell began trying in the late 1990s to record, scan, and index everything he read, wrote, watched, and heard. The task has grown less cumbersome over the years, especially with the addition of the SenseCam, a digital camera that hangs from his neck and snaps photos automatically throughout the day.

Google today is working on technologies that may come even closer to Bush’s ideal. Again, from his Atlantic Monthly article:

The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut. … The cord which trips its shutter may reach down a man's sleeve within easy reach of his fingers. A quick squeeze, and the picture is taken. On a pair of ordinary glasses is a square of fine lines near the top of one lens, where it is out of the way of ordinary vision. When an object appears in that square, it is lined up for its picture. As the scientist of the future moves about the laboratory or the field, every time he looks at something worthy of the record, he trips the shutter and in it goes, without even an audible click. …

Project Glass, anyone?