Shashi Warrier | The unwelcome results of total virtual recall

Exploring the potential and pitfalls of new software and its impact on productivity, privacy, and security.

Some weeks ago, a young software engineer moved into a flat nearby. I struck up an acquaintance with him at the grocery shop at the top of the lane. His name is Shridhar, he’s in his twenties, bright, speaks very well, but is painfully shy. I discovered soon after that he was teetotal until he started attending office parties a few months ago, and that he gets drunk very quickly.

So when he dropped in one evening, I offered him only tea. My wife Prita and I were sipping tea with him and searching desperately for something to say — I’m no good at small talk and he’s awed by women — when the doorbell rang and there stood my ex-professor friend Raghavan, bottle in hand. “I was passing by so…” he said as I waved him in.

I fetched glasses and soda, and Raghavan poured himself an extra-large. Shridhar imitated Raghavan, and, misjudging the quantity because of an unsteady hand, poured himself an even larger drink. Ten minutes later, Raghavan was relaxing visibly while Shridhar, his tongue duly lubricated, had begun to talk of the only thing he knew about, software. I had spent the day spent with some software developers who had talked of nothing but software and I was fed to the teeth with the subject, but there was no stopping him.

“This big computer software company,” he said, “is doing something big. Its CEO just announced a new product called Reminder, or something like that. It takes snapshots of your computer screen every few seconds, and uses generative AI to scan those snapshots and tie matters together. And it’ll store all those snapshots.”

“Is something like that any use?” Prita asked.

“Oh, yes!” said Shridhar. “The distinction between words and images will go. So, if you want to find out at what price you bought a brown leather wallet six months ago, it’ll search for words and images and find you everything you’ve had to do with brown leather wallets. Or, if you’re an author who’s changed a manuscript, saved it, and then wants to revert to an earlier version, and you’re not tracking changes on your word-processor, this memory thing could do it. If you just store and view photos of all your product warranty documents, you’ll find it easy to handle service calls if your washing machine breaks down… There’s no limit to the kind of use you can put it to.”

I nudged Prita before she could respond, but she too caught up in the subject to see that I was getting bored. “That’s nice,” she said. “Will it keep track of my electricity bills? The electricity people tell us we consumed 900 units last month, which seems unlikely since it’s just the two of us. I want to dispute that, so I need to get my consumption history easily.”

“Of course!” he replied. “Just store and view photographs of all your electricity bills!”

“Nice!” she said.

“Yes,” said Raghavan. “It’s good to be able to track how ideas develop, and the mistakes we make along the way.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” said Shridhar. “If supervisors see some of the mistakes their subordinates make there could be trouble.”

“Right,” Raghavan said, suddenly sitting up straight. “What kind of security does this have? Who else can see it?”

“The CEO didn’t say anything about that but I assume it’ll be good,” replied Shridhar. “Passwords, retinal images, fingerprints, voice recognition. And you can get the system to stop taking snapshots...”

“What if I forget to turn Reminder off when I need to? ” Raghavan said. “Some of the reports I do for the company are confidential. Having to turn it on whenever I’d doing something I want to remember is also a pain. Unless the security is watertight, professionals won’t use it.”

“You should remember,” said Shridhar. “It’s like locking your house when you go out.”

“Data thieves are smart,” Raghavan said. “Imagine that you’re working on something for which you can get a patent. A hacker could get into your system, see how your idea evolved, and adapt it just enough to beat the patent regulations, and maybe even beat you to it! It takes industrial espionage to a whole new level!”

I was so bored I even wished Murthy, with his nose for scotch, would turn up. And, to my surprise, the doorbell rang just then, and there was Murthy grinning on the doormat. “The elections are over in this part of the country,” he said, “but practically everyone in my circles is talking of nothing but. Except you. So I thought I’d drop in.”

“Perfect timing,” I said. “Raghavan is here, and a new neighbour.” I led him in and introduced him to Shridhar. “He’s a political analyst,” I added, hoping for a change of subject.

It didn’t work. Prita had by now understood my desperation but Shridhar and Raghavan refreshed their drinks and rambled on about Reminder, with Murthy looking on with a smug, exasperating smile. Soon, I reached breaking point. “What’s so funny?” I whispered to him, my duties as a host preventing me from breaking up the discussion. “It seems perfectly serious to me.”

Murthy’s smile widened. “It’s not going to work,” he said, over the voices of the others.

All eyes turned to him. “Why not?” I asked in the silence.

“Enough big shots watch porn on their computers,” he replied, “and even more use their computers to work their Swiss bank accounts. And they’re unlikely to remember to turn Reminder off and on when they need to. Do you think they want the police or ED getting hold of their Reminder database?”

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