People know Otter.ai as one of the AI-based transcription services that have emerged in recent years, automatically converting words spoken in interviews and meetings into text. The service can even distinguish between individual speakers. But its CEO, Sam Liang, sees this handy feature as merely a beachhead in a more ambitious and provocative project: capturing everything you hear into a master data set where you can search and relive every conversation you’ve ever had .
Liang started thinking about it ten years ago, after leaving his job at Google to co-found a startup which monitored people’s behavior on mobile devices to provide services such as automatic mileage expense tracking. “I’m obsessed with obtaining and understanding data,” he admits. “In my first startup, we used a lot of iPhone sensors: location, GPS, Wi-Fi, movement. The only sensor we didn’t use was the microphone. Fixing this would be transformational, he thought. “I was frustrated that I could search for something from 10 years ago with Gmail, but there was no way to search for something I heard three hours ago,” he said. “So I did a thought experiment. What if I keep my microphone on all day?» Liang then upped the ante again. “What if I did it even better – what if I kept the mic on all the time, all my life – from the day I started speaking until the day I died?” He calculated how much data that would be and figured out that you could store a lifetime of audio on a 2 terabyte USD drive. “Then I will be able to research everything I have heard in my life,” he says. “My parents are already dead. I really wish I could get their speech back.
Liang isn’t the only one chasing the dream – or perhaps the nightmare – of AI-powered total recall. As I wrote in February 2021, a startup called Rewind once launched with the promise of capturing life, and it has since leveraged the latest advances in AI to build that vision. Founder Dan Siroker recently announced a wearable pendant to more nimbly capture everything within electronic earshot. And just this month we made a lot of noise new startup called Humane announced a replacement for the smartphone in the form of a “pin” that can also capture voice.
These products join countless devices like Amazon’s Alexa with always-ready microphones, potentially fertile ground for apps capable of passive recording. Perhaps the rise of generative AI marks the inflection point for this idea. With this technology, recording corpora can become data sets through which people can research and summarize the events of their lives and literally engage with the smallest details of their existence. It could be like having your Robert Caro-level personal biographer on hand.
As one might expect, civil liberties advocates have some problems with this concept. Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, says the rise of permanent audio capture raises tensions between privacy and recording rights. But he’s most concerned about how all this data could be used against people, even if it was originally intended to improve their memory. “This prospect raises questions about whether the data will be protected, whether it will be vulnerable to hacking, and whether it may be vulnerable to government access,” he says. Overall, he thinks services that record all your conversations are a bad idea. “People may feel like it’s empowering to have a record of everything they’ve heard, like a great memory or something. But it could actually weaken you and turn against you.
Not surprisingly, both Liang and Siroker insist that privacy is built into their systems. Both say they discourage recording anyone without consent. And of course, they vouch for the security of their systems.