Could a new search engine save patients?

These days, considering the astronomical amount of information it has on you, chances are, your search engine has achieved creeper status. It probably knows the stores you frequent, the restaurants you’ve scanned Yelp for — and maybe even a few medical issues. At IBM, inventor James Kozloski recently filed a patent for technology that takes things a bit further. Though its premise sounds a little too close for comfort, at its heart, this innovation holds promise for a greater good.

A system that The Atlantic dubbed a “search engine for your memories,” the patent outlines a real-time cognitive assistant that will essentially “help finish your sentences for you.”

“The idea is quite simple,” Kozloski told The Atlantic. “You monitor an individual’s context, whether it’s what they’re saying or what they’re doing … and you predict what comes next.”

In a nutshell, it’s a model for the human memory, prompting the user when necessary to fill in missing information, be it an elusive name or a birthday. It operates by way of machine learning, surveillance and predictive modeling.

As a radical version of the search engine, this technology inevitably faces privacy concerns. Major search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo! monitor search histories and draw personal profiles. As a result, ranks of alternative engines such as DuckDuckGo and StartPage that don’t track any personal information, have emerged. On Jan. 6, British company Oscobo launched an anonymous search engine of the same name in the U.K.

“I saw firsthand how the industry is collecting data, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with what the industry was doing with personal data,” Oscobo cofounder Fred Cornell, a former Yahoo employee, told tech site Alphr. “That’s publishers, advertisers, ad exchanges, data traders — everyone’s at it. Everyone wants to collect more data and make more money from it.”

But while a personalized search engine for your memories might sound too futuristic, the reality is, the so-called future is the present. We already have devices that listen to us and monitor our every move, from Siri and Fitbit wristbands to Amazon Echo and Microsoft’s intelligent personal assistant Cortana. As of November 2015, WiFi-enabled Barbie dolls can now hold conversations with children using speech recognition.

The list continues, so why not use this new, more intimate technology for good? IBM’s search engine would do just that, tapping into innovation with a compassionate cause in mind. It aims to help the elderly, especially those who suffer from memory loss. For instance, if an Alzheimer’s patient dials her daughter, the cognitive assistant will know to prompt her with, say, her daughter’s husband’s name as well, especially if it knows, based on past interactions, that during this specific time, he’s more likely to pick up the phone. In addition, it could provide caregivers with an idea of which tasks are forgotten most often or help physicians track the duration and severity of the cognitive impairment.

Though such technology still falls short of a cure, it is clearly a step forward in making life more manageable for those with Alzheimer’s and other memory-related diseases.

“The Lost Mariner,” an essay published in 1985 by neurologist Oliver Sacks, illustrates the benefits best.

In the case history, Sacks’ patient, Jimmie G., is a victim of Karsakoff’s syndrome who remembers nothing of life after 1945. Sacks struggles to find a way to help Jimmie, this man who has lost his roots, connect back to life. He wonders despairingly, “But how could he connect, and how could we help him to connect? What was life without connection?”

At that point in time, Sacks was at a loss — but if it were today, the answer could very well be at his fingertips.

Valerie Yu is a senior majoring in English literature and biological sciences. She is also the blogs editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Heart of the Matter,” runs  every other Thursday.