No thanks for the memory, Microsoft, your new AI toy is a total Recall nightmare | John Naughton

On 20 May, Yusuf Mehdi, a cove who rejoices in the magnificent title of executive vice-president, consumer chief marketing officer of Microsoft, launched its Copilot+ PCs, a “new category” of Windows machines that are “designed for AI”. They are, needless to say, “the fastest, most intelligent Windows PCs ever built” and they will “enable you to do things you can’t on any other PC”.

What kinds of things? Well, how about generating and refining AI images in near real-time directly on the computer? Bridging language barriers by translating audio from 40-plus languages into English? Or enabling you to “easily find and remember what you have seen in your PC”.

Eh? This remarkable memory prosthesis is called Recall. It takes constant screenshots in the background while you go about your daily computer business. Microsoft’s Copilot+ machine-learning tech then scans (and “reads”) each of these screenshots in order to make a searchable database of every action performed on your computer and then stores it on the machine’s disk. So not only will you be able to search for a website you had previously visited, but you can also search for a very specific thing that you read or saw on that site. That jacket you saw on a tab a few weeks ago but you simply cannot remember who was selling it. The AI, though, knows about jackets and can find it. But of course, this ability to remember extends to other apps on your machine: those full-text passwords you used when accessing your bank or logging into a paywalled site, for example. “Recall is like bestowing a photographic memory on everyone who buys a Copilot+ PC,” Mehdi said. “Anything you’ve ever seen or done, you’ll now more or less be able to find.” What’s not to like?

‘It doesn’t end well’: Jodie Whittaker and Toby Kebbell in The Entire History of You. Photograph: Channel 4

Lots, it turns out. The moment Recall emerged in preview mode, people were reminded of The Entire History of You from the first season of Black Mirror. It was about a hyper-modern, sci-fi society where everyone wears an implant that records everything they do, see and hear. (It doesn’t end well.) Security experts were immediately more suspicious – especially when it was realised that Recall was on by default and needed a dive into Windows’s settings to turn it off. The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office said that it was “having discussions with Microsoft” about Recall.

And Charlie Stross, the sci-fi author and tech critic, called it a privacy “shit-show for any organisation that handles medical records or has a duty of legal confidentiality; indeed, for any business that has to comply with GDPR [general data protection regulation]”. He also said: “Suddenly, every PC becomes a target for discovery during legal proceedings. Lawyers can subpoena your Recall database and search it, no longer being limited to email but being able to search for terms that came up in Teams or Slack or Signal messages, and potentially verbally via Zoom or Skype if speech-to-text is included in Recall data.”

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Faced with this pushback, Microsoft stuck by its guns for 17 days but eventually, on 7 June, caved in, announcing that Recall would be made opt-in instead of on by default, and also introducing extra security precautions – only producing results from Recall after user authentication, for example, and never decrypting data stored by the tool until after a search query.

The only good news for Microsoft here is that it seems to have belatedly acknowledged that Recall has been a fiasco. The more interesting question, though, is what it reveals about the internal culture of the organisation. For decades, Microsoft has been a dull but dependable behemoth, secure in the knowledge that although it had initially fumbled the opportunities of the web – and, later, the smartphone – it had nevertheless retained in effect a monopoly in organisational computing. After all, almost every business and governmental organisation in the world runs on Windows software. The company belatedly got into the cloud computing business and its general counsel, Brad Smith, took on the role of the only adult in the tech fraternity house, issuing ponderous think pieces about ethics, corporate responsibility and other worthy topics.

And then came AI and ChatGPT, and Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella’s astonishing pre-emptive strike, investing $13bn in OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, to get a head start on the other tech companies – particularly Google – in the next big thing. What was most striking, though, was the way Nadella described what he was really up to: trying to make Google “dance” is how he put it. The contrast with the ancien régime of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer could not have been starker: they always sought to obliterate the opposition; Nadella merely wants to tease it. The subliminal message: Microsoft has been through its midlife crisis. It’s no longer paranoid and is enjoying playing with its latest toy: AI. The message of the Recall fiasco, though, is that it isn’t a toy. And it can blow up in your face.

What I’ve been reading

Irish eyes
James Joyce Was a Complicated Man is a thoughtful essay by Henry Oliver on the author’s conflicted relationship with his native land.

Executive disorder
A detailed plan for what Donald Trump will do if elected can be found in Inside Project 2025 by James Goodwin. Chilling.

Running man
Dan Gardner’s fascinating essay The Biden Team and the Bay of Pigs examines the malign power of groupthink.

The Guardian

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