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Artificial intelligence is built on the back of a huge corpus of data — words, images, and information that models have digested and “understand” in one way or another. That basic ability to recognize patterns and call up information is currently the most promising use for large language models (LLMs) as it stands today. Tools that look at what you’ve stored in your notes and documents and become quasi-experts that you can prod with questions.

But what if that data wasn’t purely informational? What if, rather than quizzing a chatbot for a school paper on Alexander the Great, you spent time asking it for details about your personal life?

According to a report from CNBC, Google is considering an AI feature that could do just that. “Project Ellmann,” a chatbot trained on your photos and searches using Google’s new Gemini AI models, tries to provide an overarching narrative structure to your life that you can then use to ask about specific details you might have forgotten and even discover things about yourself you didn’t realize.

The idea might seem odd, but it’s just the latest experiment in a tech industry increasingly obsessed with memory and remembering everything. It’s a passion that I think might be finally going too far for most people.

Reliving Memories

Apple’s Vision Pro announcement included a concept ripped straight from Minority Report: the ability to record and watch back vivid, 3D (in Apple’s terminology, spatial) videos that are supposed to feel as real as memories.

The company was dunked on at the time for not really grasping how sad it is to see a father film his daughters playing while wearing a goofy headset and then watching them back alone in his living room. But when the iPhone 15 Pro was announced, it was clear that Apple was serious. The high-end smartphone’s new arrangements of lenses, chips, and software features allow it to record spatial videos that will be replayable in the Vision Pro when it launches next year.

And the wild thing is, it sounds like Apple might be onto something. Inverse deputy editor Raymond Wong said spatial video added an extra “sense of realism” that’s “enough to make you feel immersed, but not motion-sick.” And in a second separate viewing, he said watching back footage of his mom in spatial video almost moved him to tears. Taken with iOS 17’s new Journal app, which prompts users to write about past experiences, photos, and locations they’ve visited, and the persistent “Memories” features for resurfacing old photos that are in apps like Apple Photos and Google Photos, and it makes sense why CNET‘s Scott Stein has started to think of Apple as a “memory company.”

Perfecting Memory

But the obsession with the past goes beyond just the ability to vividly relive memories. Companies want to achieve total recall and even improve memories you’ve captured after the fact.

Rewind, an AI company backed by Andreessen Horowitz and others, plans on achieving this quite literally. The company hopes to give users perfect memory by recording everything they do on their computers and letting them search through that growing archive to find a lost email or a specific comment from a meeting. If there’s enough interest, the company hopes to record everything users hear and say through the Rewind Pendant. Rewind has some clever ideas about how to handle the obvious privacy issues, like only recording another person if they verbally agree to being recorded, but it’s safe to say the product feels… niche.

Companies want to achieve total recall and even improve memories you’ve captured after the fact.

Less hard to grasp is Google’s slow erosion of reality by improving memories with the Pixel’s camera and photo editing capabilities. We thought Photo Unblur and Magic Eraser on the Pixel 7 Pro were creating a world where “AI, not the photographer, is at the steering wheel,” as Inverse senior editor James Pero said. But it turns out that was only the beginning.

With the Pixel 8 Pro, Google takes things even further with features like Best Take, which can swap out faces for the perfect shot, thanks to the Tensor G3 chip and new AI models. Magic Editor allows you to move elements of a photo around and use AI to fill in the gaps and even change background lighting and colors. Audio Magic Eraser can clean audio from videos and even completely remove types of sounds from the background of a recording. The basic message from Google and the tech industry at large is this: Not only should all memories be recallable, but they should be adjusted to your liking.

There’s a Benefit to Forgetting

So what if Google and company want to index your life, falsify your past, and regurgitate perfect moments whenever it pleases? What’s the worst that could happen? Well, for one, there’s Google’s rumored Project Ellmann itself. Since it bases part of its knowledge of your personal “story” on connecting the dots between photos, locations, and searches, is it going to have an accurate picture if a huge swath of your past has been edited into something slightly better than reality?

And then there’s the issue of participation. Many of the wildest AI-powered features are opt-in, but we have ample evidence that companies will use their ability to generate nostalgia if it can increase the amount of time you spend in an app or in front of ads. Wired‘s Lauren Goode learned firsthand the way apps like TimeHop use positive memories to monetize you via “a real-time auction between different ad networks” while trying to figure out why the internet-at-large wouldn’t forget her canceled wedding. It’s already hard to escape your past online; now we want AI to remember all of it?

The reality is, we’re supposed to forget things. It’s healthy, both neurologically and psychologically.

The reality is, we’re supposed to forget things. It’s healthy, both neurologically and psychologically. Time writes that scientists believe that “culling the vast amount of information the brain collects and encodes is a necessary function of cognition.” Our brains even have a dedicated set of “molecular tools” for removing memories at the same time as we’re making them. This keeps valuable information around for making decisions and lets the useless and harmful things fade away so we can stay unburdened and creative.

We could explain the tech industry’s interest in something reductive, like Silicon Valley’s workaholic culture, which would naturally prioritize making and recording memories thoroughly, revisiting them on demand, and correcting them easily. But nostalgia itself, for pasts both real and imagined, is a strong drug, too. And as AI and AI-enabled memory tools become more common, considering “Do I really want to remember that?” could be just as important as taking a photo in the first place.

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