A device the size of a sugar cube will be able to record and store high resolution video footage of every second of a human life within two decades, experts said yesterday.
Researchers said governments and societies must urgently debate the implications of the huge increases in computing power and the growing mass of information being collected on individuals.
Some fear that the advent of "human black boxes" combined with the extension of medical, financial and other digital records will lead to loss of privacy and a dramatic expansion of the nanny state.
Others highlight positive advances in medicine, education, crime prevention and the way history will be recorded.
Leading computer scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists gathered to debate these issues at Memories for Life, a conference held at the British Library yesterday.
Prof Nigel Shadbolt, president of the British Computer Society and professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton, said: "In 20 years' time it will be possible to record high quality digital video of an entire lifetime of human memories. It's not a question of whether it will happen; it's already happening."
A lap top available in the High Street can hold some 80 gigabytes (GB) of information. One hour of high resolution video footage requires 12GB.
Since the year 2000, computing processing power has been doubling approximately every 18 months - a phenomenon known as Moore’s Law.
Prof Shadbolt has calculated that it would take 5.5 petabytes (PT) to record every awake second of a person’s life in high resolution video.
One PT equals one million GB. Experts expect the increase in computing power to lead to advances in “ehealth” with doctors having access to information from devices that monitor physiological data such as heart rate and blood sugar levels.
Retailers want to get more information on their customers’ habits than they already have from their loyalty cards. The technological advances will also have a dramatic impact on the writing of biographies and history, with authors and historians able to gain vastly more information on key figures.
Cliff Lynch, director of the US think tank Coalition for Networked Information, said the changes would allow the preservation of much more detailed memories, but could lead to a dramatic extension of state interference.
“We will be able to replicate and pass on so much more information. In future you are going to have a much more elaborate picture for more and more people.
“Biographers and other kinds of scholars who want to understand what someone was thinking are going to be based with an embarrassment of riches.
“There is a certain tendency towards a technological nanny state. Imagine having a personal companion that wines at you three times a day, telling you that you are eating the wrong things and that you spent more than you earned today and you’ll never be able to retire.
“Imagine we could end up with smart refrigerator that tells you ‘you’ve already had your beer for the day, you can’t have another one’.
“I don’t think people would want a world like that, but the scary thing is it might be foisted on them.”
Prof Wendy Hall, of the University of Southampton, said: “Technology can play a vital role in memory, for example by providing an artificial aid to help those with memory disorders or enabling communities to create and preserve their collective experiences.
“However, we must also consider the social, ethical and legal issues associated with technology development and how increased access to knowledge will affect our society in open, inter-disciplinary forums.”