World Memory Championships — A Challenge to Transhumanists

The World Memory Championships are a global annual competition that every transhumanist should know about. This event features men and women from around the globe demonstrating amazing powers of mind and the potentially unlimited potential of the human brain.

Many years ago I worked with a fellow who had memorized the first two hundred digits of pi. While his feat impressed me at the time, he didn’t come close to the abilities of global memory competitors. The current record for memorizing a sequence of binary digits in 5 minutes is, for example, 1080 digits and the international record for decimal digits memorized in 30 minutes is 1400.

The 2013 event featured contestants from 30 countries ended with the winner Jonas von Essen of Sweden crowned as 2013 World Memory Champion beating out Johannes Mallow of Germany. Competitors in the Memory Championships compete in 10 different categories requiring the individual to perform different memory tasks which include things such as memorizing lists of numbers, recalling abstract visual images, memorizing lists of words, recalling names & faces,  rapidly learning the order of a deck of playing cards, etc. Some competitions are scored based on the raw memory results (digits recalled correctly) while others have point based systems.

The 2013 winner, Jonas von Essen, for example has demonstrated the ability to memorize 962 binary digits in five minutes and scored 59 points in the faces and names competition. Contestants use a variety of techniques and systems and focused concentration to achieve these results.

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Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the competition is that the performance of competitors is rapidly advancing to the point where the organization suggests in its press materials that “human potential is infinite”. For example, since 1993, the maximum number of binary digits memorized in 30 minutes has increased nearly four times from 1002 t0 3954 binary digits. At the very least, these results clearly show that human performance is not as limited or fixed as widely believed.

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Challenge to Transhumanists

An open challenge to transhumanists and scientists working in the field of cognitive enhancement is to show that these techniques can actually enhance human performance in real world applications. Can any existing drug or technological system actually enhance human performance in the World Memory Championship? It seems no such available technology exists today. Consider  for comparison stroboscopic training glasses which have achieved some measure of success in improving actual sports performance; no similar capability exists for improving memory.

The memory competition will appeal to transhumanists looking for challenging opportunities for mental self improvement; notably world class memory performance is several orders of magnitude beyond conventional wisdom about human short term memory capacity and limits on performance. The tools and techniques employed by memory champions will be fertile ground for readers interested in simple low/no cost “mind hack” approaches to cognitive enhancement.

Such increasing performance is also suggestive of what might be possible with technological enhancement. The addition of transhumanist and technological ideas to the challenge of expanding human memory opens the door to some interesting future possibilities and also some novel risks and problems.

To some extent with the aid of digital technology we’ve already entered the “Age of Remembering”. We carry with us digital recording devices that document our location, life events, and social connections and activity allowing us to remember many things we might otherwise forget and these devices give us instant access to online sources of information and knowledge we might  otherwise never remember.

A simple video recording and audio playback via implant might allow anyone to have similar or even greater memory capabilities, but would leave its users reliant on the device for enhanced memory ability. More invasive approaches could improve native human memory performance possibly by orders of magnitude beyond what appears possible today.

A recent study of the drug Valproate suggested that it could allow users to re-reopen the critical-period learning of absolute pitch. Other substances might allow similar temporary enhancement of memory for numbers or images. Neural implants have been demonstrated which can improve memory and store and transfer memories in rats. It seems various approaches might be possible.

To further improve the rate of progress, I propose that we organize a global Transhumanist Memory Championship to run alongside the unaided human version. This would be an open competition allowing the use of any technology or technological enhancements to memory we can imagine. The existing memory competition  provides an excellent set of baseline skills to consider enhancing and the format of a competition allows easy demonstration of what is possible and would allow developers to test novel techniques in a safe but stressful  situation.

Share your thoughts in comments below.


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