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Automating Invention is Robert Plotkin's blog on the impact of computer-automated inventing on the future of invention and patent law.

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July 26, 2008

Forgetful? Just Upgrade Your Memory

Have you ever referred to Google's search engine as your "backup memory"? Clive Thompson calls it his "outboard brain." Both metaphors are apt. Forget the name of that Japanese restaurant that opened last year down the street? No worries. It's just a few keystrokes away. The director of your favorite movie? Just as easy. I've reached the point where if I forget the meaning of a word while at my desk I'll look up the definition online rather than reach a few feet further for a hardbound dictionary, and not just because I'm lazy - the former has finally become faster than the latter.

Someday it may be possible to have a chip implanted in your skull which will achieve the same effect. We shouldn't, however, make too much of the difference between internal and external memory enhancements (as Andy Clark argues eloquently in Natural-Born Cyborgs). Both kinds of upgrade enhance our recall and influence our behavior. Admit it - you've looked up a fact on Google while on a phone call and inserted that fact into the conversation without confessing to the ruse. To an external observer, there is no difference between a sharper you and the same old you with a high-speed Internet connection.

One you come to rely on the ready availability of technological memory boosters, you may become less inclined to expend energy memorizing facts, just as books reduced the incentive for people to memorize Homer's Iliad. After all, anything you forget is within arm's reach. Clive Thompson, in the article mentioned above, points to a study by neuroscientist Ian Robertson which found evidence of this trend: fewer than 40 percent of respondents to a survey could remember a relative's birthday, while 87 percent of people over 50 could do so.

Inventors who harness invention-automation technology experience similar effects on their inventive abilities. A novice engineer can effectively boost his inventive skill level to equal that of a more experienced inventor by using automated tools which can explore pathways he would not otherwise have considered. Experienced designers can relegate the low-level details of design to software, just as we relegate fact-finding to search engines. The result: human inventors whose creativity has been augmented by computers, with no chip implant required.

Posted by Robert at July 26, 2008 6:57 PM
category: Human Creativity