Memory is faulty. Our brains can make up memories, erase them, or even alter them slightly to make for a distorted version of reality. Because of this, the idea of being able to digitize memory for an uncorrupted stream of events as seen by an individual has vast applications — both for institutions and consumers. Recently, researchers have made massive advances toward doing just this, and have applied these advances to several key areas where faulty human memory can be highly destructive. According to a former Google Glass executive, digitized memory has applications in enterprise solutions, medicine, and criminal justice — and the sum of all three makes for a potential $20B+ market.
To understand the market potential and applications of digitized memory, NewtonX consulted a brain imaging researcher who has worked closely with Samsung and Google, as well as the former Google Glass executive and a VR expert who previously worked on Oculus products.
The Three Main Types Of Digital Memory
There are three potential ways that digital memories could work, according to the brain imaging researcher:
1. External sensors capturing your surroundings
The simplest way to capture one’s memories would be through a Google Glass like device. Wearables are already being used in justice reform to provide accountability for police officers using deadly force (in the form of body cameras). It’s likely that they will become increasingly sophisticated, and will be mandated in areas such as policing.
Sony has also filed a patent for a contact lens that fits over the eye and is controlled by deliberate combinations of blinks that tell the camera when to record.
2. Direct input from the optical nerve, the auditory nerve etc.
Google filed a patent for an optical implant that consists of a camera being mounted inside the eye. Like wearables, this would capture video or images, not memories per se. It would include only what the wearer is seeing, not any other senses. It’s likely that it would connect to the auditory nerve as well to capture sound as the user experiences it (unlike an iPhone camera, for instance, which captures sound through a microphone).
This likely won’t become highly utilized until after digital contact lenses have become mainstream.
3. Brain-machine interface recording brain activity (senses now, emotions tomorrow)
This is certainly the most impressive form of digitizing memories, but also the most elusive. In 2014, scientists used a form of brain imaging to teach an algorithm to match a face to a memory. In the study, subjects viewed 300 different faces while researchers recorded their brain signals with an fMRI. The researchers then trained an algorithm to match certain brain activities with facial features from the photos. When the subjects were shown a new set of photos, the algorithm could reconstruct them based off of the subjects’ brain waves. While this is certainly exciting, and could have vast applications, it’s worth noting that the technology is still in its infancy. Reconstructing an approximation of an image is very different from reliving a memory of a person.
How Big is the Potential Digitized Memory Market?
The digitized memory market will disrupt three multi- million (and in some cases billion) dollar industries, according to the former Google Glass employee and the VR expert. From law enforcement, to medicine, to enterprise applications, the ability to flawlessly recall lived experiences will be highly sought after. Here are some areas in which companies have already begun to invest, as well as some that are likely to explode as implants become more mainstream.
1. Professional/Personal Memory Aid Market ($20B+)
The business and productivity app market is currently worth $58B. Implants and contact lenses that record could take a significant share of that market as note-taking devices and productivity enhancing tools (allowing users to do rapid playback of a meeting while they type, for instance). Enterprise contact lenses tailored for note-taking and recording will streamline meeting recaps, interviews, and other professional interactions where accurately remembering what was said are highly important. These will be used both by the average business person, and by journalists and politicians — where accuracy is vitally important.
Naturally, this will also extend to consumers revisiting aspects of their lives, days, or significant experiences (such as a live concert). Keep in mind, though, that 24/7 streams (as imagined in Black Mirror) are unlikely to ever be common — there’s not enough data warehousing for consumers to be recording on that level.
2. Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice ($3.1B)
Wearable camera devices on police officers have already been widely implemented in various forms, and police departments are investing millions in recording devices and other recording tech equipment. Seamless, higher quality digital memory devices for law enforcement officers as well as other public facing personnel (e.g., security guards etc.) would remove a lot of the uncertainty still present today in the exercise of justice.
Indirectly, even personal / professional memory digitization could also help the criminal justice system with eyewitness testimony. Currently, eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable (73% of convictions overturned based on DNA evidence were initially convicted based on eyewitness testimony) — not just because they lie, but because people remember incidents inaccurately. Digitized memory could act as truly reliable eyewitness testimony — assuming that most people have digitized contact lenses or implants.
3. Medicine ($5.5B)
The three primary applications of digitized memory in medicine are locked-in syndrome, alzheimer’s, and terminally ill patients.
Locked In Syndrome refers to a medical condition in which the body is paralyzed but the consciousness remains intact. Recently, massive advances in brain imaging technology have enabled scientists to communicate in cursory ways with such patients. By reading brain waves, scientists can identify if a patient is saying “yes” or “no” to different questions — a basic, but groundbreaking form of mind reading. While this technology is not meant for use in recording or reconstructing the past, it will still be useful in reconstructing the thoughts of those who cannot communicate through language or gestures.
Alzheimer’s research costs the U.S. half a billion dollars every year. One in ten people over the age of 65 is affected by the disease (5.5 million people). The brain imaging researcher, who has worked with a rare type of early-onset dementia, noted that digitized memory devices wouldn’t cure the disease by any means (particularly not rare types of dementia, such as FTD that work swiftly until the patient needs round the clock care) but they could help patients who are only mildly affected. For instance, patients who have trouble matching names to faces could use digitized contact lenses to use facial recognition software for noting a person’s name. They could also record key interactions or monumental events (a wedding, birthday, etc.) to ensure that they can relive it.
The final frontier of memory digitization is preserving human consciousness. Nectome, a Silicon Valley startup offers brain digitization for terminally ill patients. For $10,000, patients can have their brains embalmed and kept in tack for hundreds of years. The goal is to upload the patient’s brain to the cloud, so that it can be revived digitally. While the startup does have 25 interested patients, the technology that it purports to be dependent on is still a thing of science fiction — which is why MIT backed out of the project just last week, after concluding that “Currently, we cannot directly measure or create consciousness. Given that limitation, how can one say if, for example, a computer or a simulation is conscious?”
Some Companies Already Have Their Foot In The Door
Google, Sony, and Samsung have all filed numerous patents for eye implants — Google has filed 35, Sony has filed 18, and Samsung has filed 27. The NewtonX brain imaging researcher predicted that there will also be highly sophisticated advances in brain wave imaging research that allow us to fully reconstruct sentences and images. The VR expert noted that the human memory market will also have applications in gaming — in fact, game designer Will Wright, developer of The Sims and SimCity, has already announced a game that allows players to build games based off of their memories, called Proxi. The applications of digital memory are vast, and clearly tech giants are prepared to invest.
The biggest barrier to digitizing memory, though, will not be the technology itself — rather, the data storage space necessary to hold years of lived experience. “We already have cloud storage space problems that will be compounded by IoT,” explained an enterprise executive who was interviewed for a NewtonX IoT survey. If the goal is to preserve, then there has to be somewhere for all of that data to live indefinitely.
“Eye implants are just the beginning,” Declared the former Google Glass executive. “Digitizing the human experience in ways that preserve and prolong life will be the true goal of these bourgeoning technologies.”