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Recalling the Dead Past

Whether you are excited or terrified by artificial intelligence (AI), we can all agree that sci-fi has not been kind to AI. Or is it just not kind to humans? Regardless, there are many reasons to believe humans and AI don’t mix. Terminator’s Skynet, the Borg in Star Trek, the machines in The Matrix, and the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica have all given us cause for concern.


Science Fiction And AI

For most of my life, AI has been some futuristic concept, but now suddenly it has arrived and seems to be everywhere. We now share our world with AI. That’s okay. For the most part AI is harmless, and it may even make things better. I’m pretty sure that the beach background in my video calls isn’t fooling anyone, but it’s harmless if someone believes that I am meeting from the beach. 

Perhaps the most valuable use case of AI will be to manage the content that AI is creating. For example, AI bot services can help candidates apply for 1000s of jobs a day, so enterprises are resorting to AI to automatically sort through the applications. Or, Microsoft Copilot can be used to generate happier and longer emails, and also help the receivers sort through and prioritize their overflowing inbox. 

I’ve been thinking that all this hype about evil AI was misplaced. But then Microsoft announced Copilot+ for a new generation of PCs. This just might be what sci-fi has been warning us about — in other words, a Copilot too far. 

In 1956, professor, author, and the father of the “three laws of robotics” Isaac Asimov wrote a short story called The Dead Past. It features a device called a Chronoscope that can see into the past and, in the story, a history professor is frustrated that he can’t use this government-controlled device to confirm some of his historical data.

Without revealing too much of the story, the professor sets out to build his own Chronoscope. While its ability to see into the ancient past was disappointing, its ability to see what his friends and neighbors did just moments ago was impressive. After all, the “past” is constantly being collected. The proverbial genie was out of the bottle, and privacy itself was a thing of the past.


Copilot+ PCs

What does Asimov’s story have to do with Copilot+ PCs? These new PCs are Chronoscopes. They have a “feature” named “Recall.” Microsoft described it this way: 

Today, we must remember what file folder it was stored in, what website it was on, or scroll through hundreds of emails trying to find it. Now with Recall, you can access virtually what you have seen or done on your PC in a way that feels like having photographic memory. Copilot+ PCs organize information like we do – based on relationships and associations unique to each of our individual experiences. This helps you remember things you may have forgotten so you can find what you’re looking for quickly and intuitively by simply using the cues you remember. Your snapshots are yours; they stay locally on your PC. You can delete individual snapshots, adjust and delete ranges of time in Settings, or pause at any point right from the icon in the System Tray on your Taskbar. You can also filter apps and websites from ever being saved. You are always in control with privacy you can trust.

These new Recall-enabled PCs are being manufactured by the biggest players in the industry. They contain an AI chip, so no cloud connection is necessary.


Past, Present, And Future

Solving the problem of finding old things is a big win for users in today’s complex life, but we aren’t talking about your car keys here. This feature will no doubt decrease search time – and maybe even increase productivity. However, is it really a productivity aid or will this feature resurface the information from our Dead Past. The past is the benefit, but I wonder what Recall will do to our present and future.

All the players involved assure us that these snapshots are private to the user and will never get out into the public. Isn't that what McDonald’s, Marriott, and [fill in the blank] said when they collected my personal information? We see people’s private and personal data escape into the wild all the time. To be honest, new security breaches are announced every few weeks. Today, advertisers are pleased with buying indicators based on vague clues, but that’s primitive compared to what Recall can provide.


A Bank Of Personal Data

That makes Recall data quite the honeypot for hackers as well. Willie Sutton famously said he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.” Why bother with phishing schemes in the future if you can just target everyone’s personal data “bank”? 

However, even beyond the enormous risk of loss of data, there is an ethical concern at play here. Would you use a PC when you knew everything you were doing was being recorded? We are recorded all the time now with omnipresent video surveillance systems, but they aren’t analyzing our actions like Copilot+. Am I going to have to justify my actions to Copilot? “I am researching this topic for a book I intend to write.” Big employers already track web destinations, content types, and IP addresses, so maybe the content on the display is just a natural evolutionary step. 

I can think of dozens of instances where this type of recording would be a really bad idea…even if it wasn’t breached by hacking. What if individuals with abusive spouses are seeking help? I am also concerned about co-residents who share devices, but I suspect Copilot will eventually figure out that the DNA in the “ugly bag of mostly water” operating the PC is a different person. Google already provides our search data to law enforcement, so it’s not unreasonable to expect this data can and will be used against us in a court of law.


Convenience Gained vs. Privacy Lost

Maybe science fiction is far-off, and we won’t see the rise of the machines or have to scorch the sky anytime soon. However, I’d suggest that we should definitely heed the lessons taught by Mr. Asimov and pay more attention to what we could be losing than what we might be gaining.

“You have created a new world … I congratulate you.” is one of the final lines in The Dead Past, followed by, ”Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, may each of you fry in hell forever.”

Happy goldfish bowl to everyone. 

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.


Editor’s Note

On Friday, June 7, 2024, Microsoft published this update on the Recall feature on Copilot+ PCs. With this update:

  • Recall will be turned off by default; users must opt-in to the feature.
  • Windows Hello enrollment is required to enable Recall. In addition, proof of presence will be required to view the timeline and search in Recall.
  • Recall snapshots will only be decrypted and accessible when the user authenticates and Microsoft now also encrypts the search index database.

These updates go into effect before Recall (preview) ships to customers on June 18, 2024. For more detail, follow the linked blog post above.