Transactive Memory Applies Technology to Free Up Your Mind

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2014-08-25 Print this article Print
Transactive memory 2

For kids who grow up with phones, tablets and the Internet from the start, memorizing just about anything seems obviously pointless.

Knowledge is being outsourced to the Internet. Thus people are finding that using the Internet as prosthetic memory is both faster and more reliable than using one’s own brain.

We’re just getting started down this road.

Now comes Google's Knowledge Vault

Google is building the ultimate transactive memory service. It’s called the Knowledge Vault, an ambitious, scalable, self-learning knowledge machine. Google researchers unveiled a paper on the Knowledge Vault at the Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining in New York.

You’re probably already familiar with Google’s Knowledge Graph, which is a collection of human-curated databases (such as the CIA World Factbook and the Wikipedia).

The Knowledge Vault is a radical step forward because it’s machine-curated. It automatically gathers and combines information it finds on the Web, then uses a system of confidence to estimate how likely the knowledge is to be true.

The Knowledge Vault has harvested 1.6 billion facts so far, but only 271 million of them have more than a 90 percent chance of being right. Both numbers will keep increasing indefinitely.

Not only will the Knowledge Vault be able to answer direct questions where individual facts are returned as the answer (Question: “how old is Madonna?” Answer: “Madonna is 56 years old.”), but also mind the facts in a big data like way (Question: “What is the average age of living women who have had songs at the number-one spot on the Billboard Top 100?”)

Microsoft, Facebook and other companies are building similar technologies.

These knowledge machines will work day and night identifying information online, figuring out if they’re new pieces of information or whether they support or oppose existing knowledge in the system.

Meanwhile, these knowledge engines will be made available to everyone instantly via natural language queries through our wearable devices and mobile phones.

The Knowledge Vault type systems will keep getting better and faster. The wearable and mobile devices will be built into our cars, homes, clothing, jewelry and elsewhere. They will be everywhere. The price of these devices will plummet and their speed will just keep increasing.

As a result of all these trends, it’s fair to say that most general knowledge will be rendered obsolete. There will be no need to remember things and learn facts, for the most part.

This will be good and bad, of course—good because we can spend our educations on learning how to think and build things as well as understand concepts without spending all our time memorizing formulas, dates, names or facts of all kinds. Because those will always be right there with us at all times, available for instant recall.

In some ways, this transformation of how the human mind works through the outsourcing and collectivization of human memory is probably the most profound change technology will bring to our species in our lifetimes.

And the only way to avoid being assimilated, to paraphrase my professor, is to “throw away your smartphone.”

But we both know that’s not going to happen.


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