Science and Speculation: Digitized Memories of 'Remember Me' May Be Possible
'Remember Me' takes place in a world where digitized human memory isn't just possible—it's mandatory.
CREDIT: DONTNOD, Capcom
The video game "Remember Me" by French developers DONTNOD Entertainment begins with an elderly woman describing the war-torn Paris of her youth, and her escape with her husband.
"Thanks to my Sensen, I choose to remember every defining moment of my life. The good ones, and the bad. Thanks to my Sensen, my husband lives on here," she says, pointing to her heart, "and here," she adds, turning her head to point to the glowing, socket-like circle hovering over the back of her neck.
This, argues "Remember Me," is the future. The gametakes many real technologies — drones, augmented reality, social media networks — and reimagines them in the wake of a single technological breakthrough: the Sensen. This implant has the ability to digitize and share (and alter and control) human memories.
Brain-computer interfaces are a staple of many science fiction stories. But could that kind of technology really be achievable? For the first time, scientists are saying that it might. Much of the human brain and its complex functions remain a mystery, but as research tools improve and scientists build better and better models of the human brain, creating brain-human interfaces could only be a matter of time.
"Remember Me" takes place in the year 2084, when brain-computer interfaces have become ubiquitous. The citizens of the city called Neo-Paris all have Sensens at the napes of their necks.
The Sensen has become Internet, advertising platform, GPS and social media network all in one. Pass a building, and its name, address and whether you're authorized to enter appear in your mind's eye. Pass a café, and the menu appears as if it were written on the window. Pass a robot, and glowing letters specify the machine's function and the price of its services.
In some ways, the Sensen has radically changed the society of the video game world, in other ways, merely updated it. But as with most great science fiction, in "Remember Me," a device that was supposed to usher in a utopia serves instead as a tool for dystopia.
That's where the narrative starts: Nilin, the main character, is an amnesiac imprisoned for crimes she can't remember committing. A revolutionary named Edge hacks Nilin's Sensen and sends her instructions for how to escape the prison, thus beginning the gameplay.
Edge is the leader of a group called the Errorists, revolutionaries who oppose the Sensen devices and the social control they enable. Apparently, Nilin was one of them; Edge tells her she was a "memory hunter," capable of stealing peoples' memories through their Sensens and even "remixing" their memories. [See also: Fantasy Game Uses Real-Life Mind Control]
Modern Technology, with a Twist
The narrative and world of "Remember Me" hinge on memory digitization. But the game shows that this technology has influenced other technologies that may seem more familiar — things currently exist in the real world or are just over the horizon.
Today's social media networks, Facebook in particular, are actually one of the direct inspirations for "Remember Me." The developers came up with the idea for a society that shares memories by imagining what Facebook and similar services like Tumblr and Path would be like in the future, DONTNOD's creative director Jean-Max Moris told PA Report.
Whether in the slums or the suburbs of Neo-Paris, the one technology that's almost as ubiquitous as the Sensen itself in the "Remember Me" world is the network of advertisements, prices and general augmented reality analyses that appear as holographic text beside real-world locations when approached.
[See also: Augmented Reality Kitchens Teach You to Cook]
Today, augmented reality is still a novelty. "Remember Me" imagines a society where it's is the norm. But the concept of augmented reality has received a significant upgrade in the world of "Remember Me." First of all, there are no more screens. Instead of viewing "reality" through a smartphone camera or a pair of glasses, users get the augments delivered directly to their brains, via their Sensens.
It's not an impossible leap of logic. Google Glass and the upcoming Xbox Illumiroom are two soon-to-be commercially available devices that challenge those four straight lines that delineate our screens.
But seeing the price of a croissant instantly displayed is one thing. When that kind of technology can transfer memories as well, some form of drastic social upheaval is practically inevitable.
What Science Knows about the Brain
Is it actually possible to digitize memories? As with so many other aspects of the human brain, scientists just don't know yet.
President Obama recently announced the BRAIN Initiative, a project to map the entirety of the human brain, in the same way that the Human Genome Project mapped human DNA sequences. But the human brain is so complex, so minutely detailed, that the process of mapping it will make the genome effort look like a warm-up.
It's tempting to think of the brain in terms of a powerful, fleshy computer, but for all scientists know, that might be an entirely absurd metaphor.
The clearest example of the way a human brain and a computer differ is in their storage mechanisms. "We can go to a microchip and say, 'Here are a few bytes of memory, we can see them anytime we want,'" MIT neurobiologist Ed Boyden told Discovery News. "But that's not the way it works with humans or animals. When we use the memories, that's when they appear. But when we don't, we don't know where they are."
Scientists do know that while forming long-term memories, a protein called Arc accumulates at synapses, the electrical connections between neurons. This protein helps brain cells strengthen their synapses, while at the same time preventing the neurons from becoming overexcited. After this process is complete, the Arc protein travels into the neuron cell's nucleus.
Why, exactly, Arc enters the nucleus after the strengthening process is still unknown. But researchers at the Gladstone Institute, who published a paper on the discovery on June 9, say it must be important, since three separate regions within the protein's makeup are devoted to regulating this movement and then keeping the Arc there.
The precise function of Arc is just one more mystery scientists will have to solve before the transfer of memory from an organic brain to a digital interface is possible.
For now, researchers at the University of Michigan's Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department are developing surgically implantable microchips that could monitor biological processes. It's a far cry from directly influencing biology, but it's an important step. [See also: Where's My Brain-Computer Interface?]
"Remember Me" gives today's scientists plenty of time to figure it out: according to the in-game lore, the first recorded memory digitization takes place in 2064.
This Is Your Brain on Computers
The technologies people use to interact with reality drastically change the way they process and understand that reality. Plato, for example, famously lamented that the invention of writing was eroding people's long-term memories.
In "Remember Me," the Sensen has done more than directly translate memories from a brain to a computer. Like writing, Sensen changes the way the brain stores memory, in this case with a memory-based technology called a Remembrane, an archived memory that has been mapped to a specific, real-world location.
Remembranes play a significant role in the fabric of Neo-Paris; they appear to be something between a geo-cache and a diary, but characters are seen using (or at least creating) Remembranes through extremely rote or high-security tasks, such as entering a security passcode or deciding whether to turn left or right at a particular intersection.
The first Remembranes encountered in "Remember Me" are instructional markers created to show a secret way into the high-security, upper-class neighborhood of Neo-Paris, a quartier with the chillingly "Brave New World"-esque name "Comfortress." [See also: Not Child's Play: 6 Kid-Centric Games That Aren't for Kids]
These first Remembranes appear to have been created for the purpose of sharing; the level revolves around Nilin rendezvousing with the Remembranes' creator so she can "steal" the Remembranes from his memory and thus use them to enter the Comfortress.
Later, however, Nilin gains access to Remembranes that weren't made to be shared. For example, Nilin breaks into a compound by hacking a guard's Sensen, which gives her access to his Remembranes. Apparently, the guard didn't keep passcodes and basic procedures in his memory, like people do today; instead he externalized them to the locations where he uses them, in the form of Remembranes.
In the world of "Remember Me," it appears to be a common practice to use Remembranes in place of memories. But digitizing memory has another consequence, this one apparently unintended: the ability to "doctor," or edit those memories.
In the game, this process is called "remixing," and we're told only Nilin has the ability. In terms of gameplay, the remixing sequences feel something like basic video editing meets point-and-click adventure gaming: you can rewind and fast-forward through a character's memory, altering little details like the position of a bottle or whether a gun's safety is on or off. Get the right combination, and Nilin can effect serious change in the subject's memory that will radically change his or her perception of the present.
For example, in an early sequence in the game, a bounty hunter is pursuing Nilin for Memorize Corporation in order to pay the company for her husband's Sensen-related medical bills. During the scuffle, Nilin hacks into the bounty hunter's brain and finds a memory of her husband's most recent treatment. By altering small details in the scene, such as unfastening a restraint and unplugging a tube, Nilin creates a memory in which the bounty hunter's husband died. The bounty hunter, now believing that the company she's working for is responsible for her husband's death, immediately stops fighting Nilin and offers to help her.
The secret of remixing, then, is that it doesn't involve designing whole new memories from the ground up. You can't make memories from scratch. Instead, Nilin achieves false memories by tweaking the architecture of existing ones, relying on the processing power of the subject's brain to render the result.
Future Tense, and Getting Tenser
The Neo-Paris of "Remember Me" is a strange mélange of modern, ancient and futuristic. Experiences like walking down the cobblestone streets alongside robots, for example, or seeing the Cathédrale Notre-Dame surrounded by the metallic towers of Memorize headquarters are striking and even jarring — and intentionally so.
"Remember Me" is all about the links between past, present and future. It takes current tools for creating and disseminating memories, such as Facebook, and combines them with futuristic brain science breakthroughs. The amnesiac Nilin is the perfect protagonist to navigate a story and a society in which memory is power. Her quest to rediscover her past parallels the and the efforts of Edge and the other Errorists to break free of Memorize Corporation's and the Sensens' control.
Is this the kind of control people will have over the past in the future? There's still a lot to learn, about computers and about the human brain, before anyone knows.