Why I Wish I Had a Memory Like a Robot

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 4, 2015

Have you ever wished you had a perfect memory? I have.

Have you ever wondered what having a perfect memory would be like? Me too.

Have you ever imagined what your memory would be like if you were a robot? Yeah, I think about such far out ideas too. Future intelligent machines will store memories as digital files, and would only forget if they decide to delete them. Robots will record everything they see, hear, feel, smell and taste. If a robot read a book or watched a movie, they could store the complete work as a file. They’d have perfect recall of whole libraries. When I spend twenty hours reading a nonfiction book full of wonderful information, I might be able to give a vague five minute summary of it two weeks later.  Robots would remember everything, and link everything in the book to everything else they know. Damn, I wish I was a robot.

I hate that I take in so much knowledge and quickly forget it. I hate my memory is so unreliable.

Bad Lands

Movie watching is a great example of my frustration with my limits of memorization. For example, last night I watched Bad Lands, an old western from 1939. I’m quite positive I’ve seen it before. I am also quite positive that I’ve experienced the same plot used in another movie. If I had a perfect memory I wouldn’t need to watch a movie again. If I had a perfect memory, I’d remember where and when I saw Bad Lands the first time. If I had a perfect memory I’d know what movie Bad Lands ripped off. If I had a perfect memory I’d know what other movies the actors from Bad Lands had been in. I’d also remember when and where I had seen those movies too. A perfect memory would mean knowing a vast web of interrelationships – much like the internet.

With the help of Wikipedia, I figured out this western was inspired by The Lost Patrol, from 1934, which I also have vague memories of seeing. And by jumping over to IMDb, I could follow the links to see what other movies all the actors from Bad Lands played in too. Robert Barrat (1889-1970) who played the sheriff, has 161 movie and television acting credits at IMDb. Some shows I remember seeing, and many more I could have seen – but alas I don’t remember Barrat in any of them, nor did my memory feel any recognition  when I saw him last night in Bad Lands. I did recognize Noah Beery, Jr. and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, from movie memories which I can’t recall their titles. I did think Guinn Williams had been a side-kick in some Errol Flynn movies, and IMDb validated those hunches. I even felt Beery and Williams had been in other movies together, but so far the internet hasn’t helped me prove that whiff of intuition.

If I was a robot, I’d be a western movie guru.

another-dawn-1937

What’s spooky is last night was the second night in a row of picking out an old movie to watch, thinking they were new to me, and realizing in a déjà vu manner, I had seen them before. The previous night I had seen Another Dawn, a 1937 flick with Kay Francis and Errol Flynn. It didn’t take long to feel I’d seen it before, but for the life of me I couldn’t summarize the plot. I enjoyed both movies because I didn’t remember enough to know how’d they turn out. I either faintly remembered the ending of Another Dawn, or guessed it, and I guessed wrong about the last man standing in Bad Lands. Being human means seeing a movie again can be fun. Would anyone with a robotic memory ever watch a film twice?

The Big TrailStagecoach

I want to remember everything. I wrote about Kay Francis last week, and listed her top films according to IMDb, but some people wanted to know which of her films were my favorites. I’ve seen many, but can only name a couple off the top of my head. I know there are others I really loved when I saw them, but can’t remember the titles, or even what they were about. Isn’t that a pisser? My memory has never been very good, and now that I’m getting older, it’s getting downright untrustworthy – even flaky.

My unfaithful memory is painful. I’d love to have the kind of memory were I could say, “These are my favorite 10 westerns of the 1930s,” and then tick them off in a flash. I can remember I love The Big Trail for 1930 and Stagecoach from 1939, but can’t remember anything in between.

One reason I called this blog Auxiliary Memory is because when I do write an essay about my favorite westerns, it will be in a memory I can recall. When I’m watching TV with Janis or Susan, I often ask them, “Where have we seen her before?” Susan is surprisingly good at remembering, and Janis is almost as good. Both are far better than me. But I think it pains Janis most when she can’t remember. We’ll often be in the middle of a really engaging show and she’ll have to pull out her iPhone to track down an actor or title. I’ll have to pause the TV, because nothing will stop her until she’s tracked down her fact. Janis is like a bloodhound on a scent when chasing an elusive memory.

I like to contemplate what life would be like if we all had perfect memories. But would we have as much to talk about if we all remembered everything? Would I turn to Janis to say, “We saw this actor back in August 4, 2003 when we saw The Ideal Husband,” knowing she already knew that? And Susan would not enjoy making fun of my poor memory, nor I get to praise her for having such a good one.

Even though we might have less to talk and joke about, wouldn’t it be great to have perfect memories? Everyone would have gotten 100s on all their school exams, and we’d have no need to take the written test at the DMV. And think how much easier it would be to write a PhD thesis having memorized all the research? And after we watched a wonderful film, we could play it over in our head whenever we wanted. Parties would be so much less stressful when we could remember everyone’s name.

Probably there’s some huge downsides to having a memory like a robot.  Although, couldn’t we just delete the bad memories? Or would we?

JWH

12 thoughts on “Why I Wish I Had a Memory Like a Robot”

      1. Can you elaborate, Joachim? Why would it be a curse. My holey unreliable memory feels like a curse. I guess we’ve evolved poor memories for survival traits – and that would imply great memories would be a problem. What’s even weirder, is we seem to record more than we can recall, because often trigger forgotten memories.

        It really bugs we that I spend so much time reading and forget 99.9% of what I read. Maybe even 99.99% or more.

      2. Well, read the story 😉 I think you want better memory, not memorizing the exact words on every page, the texture of every surface, every time you’ve gone to the restroom, every time your cat has rubbed your leg….

  1. Marilu Henner of Taxi fame has perfect or near perfect memory. This should have been handy when memorizing scripts.

    I have also seen someone on Oprah or one of the daytime talkshows with near perfect memory. The downside is they recall painful experiences too well. Breaking a leg, and being dumped are as painful to them as when the event took place.

    In the last year or two there has been a new network TV show called Unforgettable about someone with this type of memory.

    That said, let’s go back to dreaming about the robotic kind of perfect memory. There having no emotions gives only upside to perfect memory. Maybe we’ll finally see a robot that prefers to have no emotions. That Data story device on ST:TNG got used too much. It was almost as if he was jealous of us.

    1. I think intelligent machines might have emotions of a kind – but they’ll be less surging and waning because they won’t be tied to chemistry. Curiosity is a kind of emotion, don’t you think? So is sense of awe or beauty. I think robots will have intellectual emotions. We have those, but they are overshadowed by our animal instinct emotions. But is lust really that valuable? Or hatred and revenge? Remember when Data got the humor chip? Does laughter come from hormones or intellect?

      1. I’d imagine a robot to have awe when shown powerful equations for the first time. And I also imagine robots would see efficiency as beauty. So I guess I can see robots having the more intellectual emotions.

        I remember reading a joke book and pulling a joke from it: What’s black and white and red all over. The answer in the jokebook was a sunburned zebra. This is of course meant to be a play on the more common answer; “read” sounds like red and so a newspaper is the answer. But I didn’t know any of this. I thought the sunburned zebra was funny without knowledge of newspaper. Maybe I just thought it was funny because people would get it wrong. I’m just saying humour is complex. The newspaper answer might be intellectual humour but the sunburned zebra answer might be hormones.

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