Hey, Google, Show Me How Not to Forget

Four ways that Google and other technologies can support memory.

Posted Feb 06, 2020

Source: QuinceMedia/Pixabay

Super Bowl ads are the highlight for millions of people who watch the big game every year. While I found the February 2 battle between the “Kansas-based,” Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers to be an exciting game (although my New England Patriots were sitting on the sidelines), I was struck by the sheer number of great ads, many of which nearly brought me to tears.

I loved Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day ad (my dog Murray is named after him and celebrated his sixth birthday on February 2) and was cheering Carli Lloyd as she kicked a game-winning field goal in the “Secret” ad. Perhaps most memorable of the ads was Google's $15 million, 90-second ad titled “Loretta,” which portrayed how an 85-year-old man and the grandfather of a Google employee was able to use Google Assistant to remember some of the most meaningful parts of his life with his deceased wife, Loretta. The ad, ostensibly designed to make us feel better about how much Google already knows about our personal lives, points out one of the real benefits of keeping information online and in the cloud. Google can be our “memory assistant.” 

As I watched the ad, I thought that it was being directed towards baby boomers such as myself who are beginning to observe their own memory loss and are often responsible for the care of their elderly parents with even more memory concerns. Interestingly, talking to some of my 20-something students and my 30-something children, they felt the ad spoke to them about their grandparents' loss of memory and also about how they might use Google Assistant to help them with their daily routines.

It seems as if concerns about memory loss have become mainstream in the past few months. I frequently see TV ads for Prevagen, a memory supplement. A recent NY Times article by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin entitled "Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong" was listed in their most popular section for many days. In a world where there is so much to remember, it makes sense that we look for ways that Google and other technology can support our memory.

“Loretta” made it seem as if retrieving our memories was as simple as saying, “Hey Google, find this memory.” It would be very scary if that were the case, as it would imply that Google not only knew what we liked to eat, do, buy, and watch but also followed us around on a daily basis, knowing what we were doing and where we were going. Much of this may already be happening, and in the future, much more about our personal lives and memories is likely to be known by others, whether or not we give Google, other technology companies, or the government our approval. If we choose to put our lives online, which many of my 20-something students acknowledge they are comfortable with, it will become easy to ask Google where we were, what we ate, or whom we were with on certain days in our lives. Our memories would be more complete, although perhaps no longer our choice.

If happiness is truly more about having experiences rather than possessions, remembering and accessing previous experiences as we age can make for a richer life in the elderly. As much as “Loretta” would like to make us think that an 85-year-old can independently talk to Google Assistant and relive some of his best times with his deceased wife, it’s pretty unlikely he’d have the technical skill to do so.

A more realistic portrayal of how this might work can be seen in another technology giant’s ad, Apple’s tearjerker "Holiday - The Surprise." This ad shows how children can use technology to create and preserve memories for their elderly relatives. Because most people over the age of 45 are best considered to be digital immigrants, people who did not grow up with technology as an everyday component of their lives, they may need to work much harder to use technology to preserve their memories. Virtual assistants such as Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri are making this easier to do for those of us who did not grow up as digital natives.

Randy Kulman
Here you can see my mother, an owner of an Amazon Alexa device.
Source: Randy Kulman

However, even learning the simple commands to use virtual assistants may not make much sense to those who did not grow up with digital technologies. After watching my 88-year-old mother attempt to use Alexa, I can assure you that there is much more work to be done before technologies can serve older adults to preserve their memories. My mother loves to engage in lengthy conversations with Alexa. Most recently, she told Alexa, “Hey, Alexa, I miss my granddaughter, Mia. She lives in Florida and hasn’t been here to visit me in a while, can you call her for me?” Alexa was stumped! Even with all of my instruction and the poster on her wall that says, “Hey Alexa, call...,” she still hasn’t been able to master her virtual assistant. We can all learn to say, “Hey Siri,” or to use basic Alexa commands, but the knowledge of how to input parts of our lives into the cloud and the recognition of the mixed blessing of doing so is not in the purview of most digital immigrants. And beyond the effective use of virtual assistants, we need better methods to find, organize, and manage our memories if we want them to enrich our lives and enhance our memories. 

Here are four ways that Google and other technologies can support memory:

Learn to think like a computer. If we understand more about how files and the cloud are organized, we will be able to find what we want from our digital memories. We need to think about labeling our digital memories deliberately, thinking about how they are meaningful to us. Using keywords, images, connections, and events will help us find what we have filed away. You won’t always know what will be significant to you later in life, but grouping and organizing around themes such as family, work, travel, recreation, education, and other important activities may help you to know how to reconstruct your memories.

Don’t use too many tools. There is always the latest and greatest app or tech that promises to do it all. Find one that is updatable and popular. Popularity may prevent it from being obsolete or at least make it so it can be transferred into a newer tool. Master it and practice with it to help you know how you are using this tool and how and where to locate your digital memories. Photo apps, online videos, and cloud-based document tools that have voice commands might be best.

Keep a digital diary with your calendars. Add a bit more data to your calendars to help with recall. Images, notes, and people can all serve as sources of memories for important occasions.

Label your pictures. Take lots of pictures and label them once a month. It’s super easy to do. On an iPhone, look at your photos, hit select in the upper right-hand corner, and go to ADD to on the bottom, putting them either into an older album or a new one you create. 

Ultimately, your memories will fade, even if you use all of the newest brain-training and medical advancements. But new technologies are likely to grow in their capacity to capture, record, and organize our memories. Being deliberately cognizant of what we’d like to remember and how we are most likely to organize our thinking can go a long way towards keeping “Loretta” alive for many of us as we age.