“Human memory is not the same as computer memory,” said James Kozloski, an inventor at IBM who focuses on computational and applied neuroscience. “We don’t have pointers. We don’t have addresses where we can just look up the data we need.”
Kozloski wants to change that. He recently filed a patent for technology that, in the simplest terms, will help finish your sentences for you. Like autocomplete for your voice, the system is a model of human memory that could be embedded in a device and offer prompts when necessary. It would use a combination of surveillance, machine learning, and Bayesian inference—a kind of predictive modeling—to recognize when a person has forgotten something, then provide the missing information.
“The idea is quite simple,” Kozloski told me. “You monitor an individual's context, whether it’s what they’re saying or what they’re doing ... and you predict what comes next.”
The monitoring could be done in many of the ways that people are already using sensors today. It might involve Fitbit-like wearables; movement trackers like the ones smart thermostats use to determine when a person walks from one room to the next; and WiFi-connected microphones like the ones the newfangled Barbie dolls have so they can listen and reply to children. Which is to say, if you’re unsettled by the notion of a future in which omnipresent computers are watching you and listening to you: That future is already here.
A cognitive assistant would probably have to draw on short-range wireless technologies that could pair with sensors to figure out exactly what a person’s doing: distinguishing, for example, between the arm movement you make when you brush your teeth versus how your arm moves when you’re dicing garlic.
If you can get past the creepiness factor, a cognitive interface like the one Kozloski envisions could theoretically be useful for anyone, but he sees specific applications for people as they get older—and especially for those who suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s. “The loss of ability to access memory in the moment is the beginning of the breakdown of normal cognitive function: the ability of individuals to interact with others, take care of themselves, clothe themselves, cook meals,” he said.
Such a system could help caregivers track how people are doing over time—are they forgetting important tasks more frequently?—and “perhaps prevent side effects of what are otherwise sort of innocuous episodes of forgetting,” Kozloski said. “Like getting confused, getting agitated, then putting myself at a greater risk.”
Imagine for example, if your cognitive assistant knew that when you dial a certain person’s phone number—your niece, let's say—it should also remind you of the name of her husband. The system might also know that, because of the time of day when you’re calling, the husband is more likely to pick up the phone. Or that, by checking a calendar, it happens to be his birthday.