“In the future, it will be possible to save and relive memories… They may possibly be downloaded into a new body or a robot body. Elon Musk stated in a Neuralink presentation in 2020, “The future will be strange.”
As per Swaddle, Musk’s brain-computer interface startup, Neuralink, has recently applied for permission to begin human clinical trials in 2023 and plans to implant the first chip in a human brain within six months. According to Musk, who hopes to implant one of these microchips in his own brain in the future, the technology may allow humans to control our memories in the future.
However, these assertions of technology manipulation and enhancement of human memory, which are more dystopian science fiction than reality at this time, could have far-reaching ethical implications for individual autonomy.
With the majority of memory modification technology research being conducted by corporations, may our future selves run the risk of having their memories, and eventually their identities, converted into data that supports economic ventures? Moreover, such technology could exacerbate the socioeconomic divisions that now exist in society, as well as alter the very nature of human memory.
Some neuroscientists fear that this is already occurring, as our overdependence on technology diminishes our memory — a phenomenon dubbed “digital amnesia.” “Outsourcing” simple activities to our devices, such as navigating to our homes and workplaces or remembering a family recipe, while multitasking on our cellphones, which distracts us from the present now, might ultimately hamper our ability to remember information. According to Oliver Hardt, a researcher who studies the neurology of memory and forgetting, there is a cost to the comfort that technology provides. According to Hardt, our dependency on technology may even raise the risk of dementia.
“The less you use your mind, the less you employ the systems responsible for complex things such as episodic memory and cognitive flexibility, the more likely you are to develop dementia,” said Hardt. Neuroscientists have deciphered a portion of the enigma surrounding memory creation throughout time, but much remains unexplained. Researchers find Musk’s assertions that he can download a person’s consciousness and “back up” their memories to be implausible.
“That’s not to say it won’t occur, but I believe the underlying neurology is lot more unstable. We know far less about how these brain processes operate…” Professor of neural interfaces at Newcastle University Andrew Jackson stated. While many share Jackson’s skepticism, others continue to investigate memory augmentation techniques, pondering: What is conceivable when technology meets human memory? But perhaps a more crucial concern is: What will occur if this is made possible?
Memory-enhancing brain implants are one example. Using electrical stimulation, two groups of researchers were able to restore memory function in epileptic patients in 2018. “The main news here is decoding: We’ve now been able to harness the massive amounts of data produced by the human brain…” University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Michael Kahana stated to NBC News.
This implant or “memory prosthesis” functions roughly as follows: The researchers saw the creation of a memory in an area of the brain that had not been harmed. The researchers then used this as a guide to establish how the injured portion of the brain should encode new memories. CNN said that this injured region was stimulated using electrodes to restore normal functioning.
Although a commercial memory prosthesis is still a ways off, the fact that this technology has been successfully implemented in people is a significant breakthrough. Brain implants could have unquestionable advantages in the field of healthcare, particularly for the treatment of people with memory diseases such as Alzheimer’s or memory impairment induced by traumatic brain injuries.
However, strengthening memories artificially raises ethical concerns for future generations. First, any enhancement treatment could magnify recollections of traumatic events, resulting in a greater “overgeneralized fear memory” that contributes to the development of anxiety disorders. Dr. Heather Berlin, a cognitive scientist at the Icahn School of Medicine, enumerated several other concerns: “Will neural implants result in enhanced and unenhanced classes of citizens? What if someone can access your implant and manipulate your thoughts and actions?” There are no simple solutions to any of these.
Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu were the first to demonstrate that not only is it feasible to reawaken memories, but it is also possible to implant a false memory in the brains of mice. In order to accomplish this, they shocked a mouse’s foot while utilizing light to activate the memory of a previous neutral setting. When the mouse was reintroduced to the box in which it had not been shocked, it exhibited scared behavior, demonstrating the existence of an artificial memory. “The animals were afraid of a habitat that, technically speaking, had never experienced anything ‘bad’,” Ramirez explained.
Ramirez and Liu have also conducted experiments to see whether happy memories can be strengthened while painful memories are diminished. Memory modification technique has admittedly only been tested in animal models to date. If its relevance to people is discovered, it could lead to beneficial interventions for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health disorders.
However, Ramirez cautions against needless sensationalism, adding, “There are so many leaps and bounds between working with mice and working with humans, not to mention the ethical implications.” However, the technology is theoretically feasible, which raises concerns for the future of human memory.
Some feel that our memories, notwithstanding their fallibility, have a role in moulding our worldviews and self-perception. According to research, our personal narratives are built by the subconscious selection of memories. According to a 2016 research published in the AMA Journal of Ethics, more selective modification of memories could have far-reaching effects on how “people consciously form their sense of self and adhere to social standards.”
In the distant future, if Ramirez and Liu’s experiment is applied to people, there is a high risk of abuse. Memory modification might likewise become a means of torture and control with relative ease. Ramirez is well aware of these disadvantages, but he told Vice, “We can do the same thing to trigger positive memories and update neutral memories with positive inputs. It is effective in both directions.”
Who gets access to this technology may ultimately affect how it is utilized. It is not impossible to picture a hypothetical scenario in which this technology is in the hands of an authoritarian regime or a company, where it might be used to bolster surveillance systems to either crush dissent or transform our innermost thoughts into data that generates profit.
The goal with which these technologies are created is subsequently a crucial issue to examine. For instance, Ramirez told Vice that it should remain inside the medical community. If this ever becomes a reality, we will ideally maintain it within the realm of medicine, in the context of brain problems. Others, such as Bryan Johnson, CEO of the neurotech company Kernel, which is developing a memory prosthetic, wish to make this technology accessible to “billions of people.”
“If you consider a scenario where I’m enhanced and you’re not… or my child is enhanced and yours is not—an it’s unbearable state,” Johnson told Vice, adding that a highly lucrative industry centered on human intelligence is forming. This raises the prospect that such memory modification technology will create new hierarchies and inequalities or accentuate existing ones. Even its ability to treat neurological illnesses could result in a situation similar to the one we observe now, in which access to healthcare is dictated by socioeconomic status and social inequality. As the majority of this technology is being developed with therapeutic uses in mind, there are unknown hazards associated with invasive procedures and probable long-term effects of brain implants that map and modify neurological functions.
Recently, “mind uploading,” or the concept of transferring a person’s consciousness to a computer simulation, has been a hot topic of conversation, particularly among Silicon Valley software engineers. Even though the concept is now simply a theory, futurists are developing technology that will allow a person’s memories to live on online.
In a sense, we are already uploading and even curating our memories through the use of images and movies, leaving digital fingerprints that will survive us all. Is it therefore conceivable to keep our genuine memories and, by extension, our identities beyond death? The developers of the website Eterni.me, which aims to produce a “digital clone” of a person, say yes.
While organizations currently keep extensive digital records of everything we do on the Internet in order to develop a profile of who we are, Eterni.me goes a step farther. According to BBC Future, a person who wishes to keep their identity and “avoid being completely forgotten” must grant this corporation access to their social media accounts, email accounts, geolocation data, and search history.
All of this data is eventually translated to a digital avatar, which co-creator Marius Ursache refers to as a “artificially intelligent biographer” because it duplicates the individual’s appearance and demeanor. The greater your interaction with the avatar, the more accurately it will be able to imitate you after your death.
“Our ultimate goal is to… construct a library of human memories,” Ursache stated, adding that the development of this technology will take several years. How replaceable is a digital representation or archive of our memories with our actual selves? is a key point highlighted here?
According to BBC Future, a simulation is merely an imitation of a human, and the recording of one’s life is a selective process. Details can be modified, emphasis can be shifted, and entire relationships can be severed if it is appropriate in the present context. In other words, we frequently provide an incorrect account of ourselves.”
As with other technologies involving the human memory, there are privacy problems associated with this one as well. Not to mention moral issues and a dispute about whether a digital clone deserves legal rights – all of which are entirely unexplored ethical dilemmas that scientists have yet to fully resolve. As neuroscientific research continues to uncover more about the nature of memory, experts assert that ethical frameworks will be required to guide this research and its uses in a responsible manner.