Optimizely’s Founder Wants to Augment Your Memories
February 12, 2021
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Siroker won’t be drilling into skulls to rewire brains. Instead, the plan is to methodically capture and store all sorts of data—audio, video, and eventually biometric—that can be easily searched or cleverly invoked in a way that augments your actual memory with stuff you otherwise wouldn’t have possibly remembered, unless you were Marilu Henner.

That’s the long term-vision. Scribe’s first product is a more modest effort. “For practical purposes, we’re focusing on dominating a niche and growing from there,” he says. That niche is an add-on product to Zoom, transforming the audio and video from the platform into an exceptionally accessible data trove. “Meetings are a good place to start,” he says, explaining that his product will free people to concentrate on the subject and interact with others. “We’ll take care of the remembering,” he adds. When you invite Scribe to a meeting—it shows up as a faceless participant—you have a dynamic rapporteur who not only logs what people say and what they look like as they say it, but will eventually be able to dive into previous meetings or other corpuses to find relevant snippets of conversation or documents. “It’s like having a chief of staff whispering in your ear,” says Siroker.

Scribe’s impressive list of investors, including luminaries from Facebook, Google, and Y Combinator, approve of Siroker’s gradual approach to total recall. “When people talk about merging with AI or computers, they always think of the Elon Musk Neuralink approach,” says Sam Altman, cofounder of Open AI (with … Elon Musk). “But we’ve already somewhat merged with technology. Our phones somewhat control our behavior, and we’re willing to outsource a lot of our decisionmaking and memory already,” adds Altman, who was first to contribute to Scribe’s initial $5 million funding. “I don’t memorize facts anymore, because I know I can just get whatever I need quickly on the internet.”

But there are perils of offshoring one’s memory, chief among them a privacy concern. While outsiders can’t delve into our brains to access our memories, they can certainly plunder the servers that store the personal histories that Siroker hopes we will preserve via Scribe. And many of those conversations will be recorded passively, through inputs like the increasingly pervasive microphones in devices like Alexa. Or the augmented-reality devices that companies like Facebook and Apple are developing. Or biometric recording devices.

Siroker says that he’s very privacy-conscious, and all of those digitally stored memories will go into “your own personal vault.” He’s also thinking a lot about how to make sure the people you interact with don’t feel you’re stealing their words. He doesn’t want Scribe to become something that wipes out the concept of “plausible deniability.” And so he’s thinking of giving people mulligans. “You can go back and delete something you said earlier if you don’t like it,” he says. “It’s not a permanent record, but something you have control over.”

Wait a minute … if people can mess with your memories, or you can edit them yourself, doesn’t that give us the power to alter history? Siroker says he does not want people to alter records in a way that supports nefarious uses like deepfakes. But that sentiment doesn’t deal with the fact that storing one’s history means capturing someone else’s.

I doubt that these futuristic concerns will hamper Scribe’s foray into the Zoom add-on market. In fact, the initial product—now in private beta and widely available later this year—seems pretty useful without making us hyperthymesiacs. When using Scribe with Zoom, you can not only easily find everything uttered in a meeting but perform analytics. For instance, you can instantly create a pie chart exposing who is dominating the conversation and who isn’t saying much. And it’s simple to use the tool to create a highlight reel of a meeting that can be shared to those who weren’t in attendance.

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