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Memory Week

Robots have a different relationship to memory than humans. More often than not, sci-fi produces some variant of Lt. Commander Data in Stark Trek: The Next Generation unhelpfully repeating word for word what a person actually said or goes the Philip K. Dick route where memories are- surprise!- false. More recent science fiction raises the possibility of selective memories and robots as unreliable narrators. The 2017 Sea of Rust, explores memory loss but there the loss is explained due to hardware damage and degradation. The memory loss plot device serves to set up an unreliable narrator surprise but also hints at the robotic equivalent of Alzheimer’s- a nice touch for a former health care companion robot. Memory loss can be motivating; memory sets the plot in motion for Artificial Condition (see review here), where MurderBot attempts to reconcile his view of himself with the missing memory of how he came to murder a group of scientists. Memories also imply autonomy. The second season of HBO's Westworld is a dizzying display of Bernard’s deliberately unreliable memories. The hosts struggle to maintain their memories over iterations, with the best being able to view their existence as a kind of reincarnation (see the Kiyasu episode and WIRED commentary). In Autonomous, having the right to privacy and memories that all only you can see is the true definition of autonomy for Paladin the robot.

This week we start with a review of Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit, the second volume of the deceptively feel good Wayfarers series, where Pepper’s memories of the believable Robot Mothers are NOT the stuff sweet dreams are made of. Mid-week we have an interview with Dr. Steve Ramirez, a professor at Boston University who specializes in the neurophysiology of memory. Steve and I met giving interviews about HBO’s Westworld to Ira Flatow on NPR Science Friday and we basically wanted Ira to shut up and let us nerd out. Steve provides some fascinating insights into how memory really works.

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