Technicalities

REAL A.I. While agency data storage managers concern themselves with the huge task of cataloging, storing, archiving and accessing the petabytes of data the government collects, an associate professor at Harvard has an idea that could tangentially lessen the load: Make software that forgets.

Viktor Mayer-Schonberger of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government released a working paper last month raising the question of whether computer systems should retain every bit of information they come across. (To read the paper, 'Useful Void: The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing,' go to GCN.com and enter GCN.com/769.) He notes, among other things, that Google has saved every one of its search queries, travel companies store every reservation and law enforcement has growing databases of information on even law-abiding citizens.

Up next, he said, is the tracking of individual movements, courtesy of pervasive Global Positioning System devices, radio frequency identification tags and other sensors. Mayer-Schonberger isn't suggesting that we expunge real records but rather that computer systems follow the ages-old human tradition of forgetting about the small stuff.

He points out that, before digital systems, the usual default was to throw out information that didn't have to be saved. Now, it's to save everything. 'Living in a world in which our lives are being recorded and ... in which societal forgetting has been replaced by precise remembering, will profoundly influence how we view our world and how we behave in it,' he writes. On the bright side, efforts so far to build massive, searchable databases of personal information have mostly all failed. But someday, somebody might get it right. And then we might have cause to worry.

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