fb-pixelMicrosoft unveils AI-powered computers with total recall, sparking concerns Skip to main content
tech lab

A computer with total recall. What could go wrong?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks during a showcase event of the company's AI assistant, Copilot, ahead of the annual Build developer conference at Microsoft headquarters on May 20 in Redmond, Wash.Lindsey Wasson/Associated Press

Where the heck did I put that file?

I’ve always wanted a personal computer that can answer that question accurately and instantly. But maybe I’m in the minority.

Because this week, Microsoft unveiled a new kind of Windows-based personal computer that comes pretty close to my ideal of a machine with a perfect memory. And people freaked.

Microsoft has teamed up with the world’s leading PC builders to offer new machines with built-in artificial intelligence chips. These machines will include a new AI-powered feature named Recall, which will automatically record most of your digital activities, and provide you with instant flashbacks on demand.


It’s a promising solution to an irritating problem. Our computers already contain vast amounts of information. But they’re lousy at finding this data when we need it.

Windows’ own file search feature is almost useless, so over the years I’ve tried a variety of third-party indexing apps. I’m presently using Dash, a free beta program from Dropbox that can generate an index of all my local files, as well as stuff stored in the cloud. Type in a keyword like “Tesla,” and Dash provides a list of files where the word appears.

Microsoft’s Recall promises a lot more. It relies on a specialized chip called an NPU, or neural processing unit, which can run complex AI models right on the computer rather than in the cloud. Bad news: You’ll have to purchase a new NPU-equipped Windows PC to take advantage. Microsoft itself will be adding NPUs to some of its Surface PCs, and so are the other big vendors — Dell, HP, and Lenovo, to name a few. They’re expected to sell for $1,000 and up.


#microsoft #windows11 Satya Nadella says Windows PCs will have a photographic memory feature called Recall that will remember and understand everything you do on your computer by taking constant screenshots

♬ original sound - MintyNine

Recall sets aside a chunk of the computer’s data storage for a running record of your activities. It takes a screenshot every time you scroll down a page or open a different app or click a different web page. Then it uses built-in AI models and the NPU chip to extract useful information from all that stored data.


Say you recently viewed a cool online image of a Tesla driving through a desert. You’d like to see it again but you can’t remember the website or the date. If Recall works as advertised, you should be able to simply ask it to show images of a Tesla in a desert. Existing search tools would look for photos tagged with words like “Tesla” or “desert.” But most of us rarely tag individual photos. No matter. Recall’s AI is allegedly smart enough to “see” the image, recognize it, and serve it up.

A tool like this could give you instant access to every email you’ve ever written, every online news story you’ve ever read, every photo you’ve ever filed away. To be sure, Recall doesn’t remember everything. It won’t save audio or video, for instance. But for text and still images, the system should preserve everything.

At this point, I’m cursing myself for having bought a new laptop a few months ago. Recall sounds like a feature I’ve always wanted. But plenty of people feel otherwise.

Elon Musk, for instance. The chieftain of Tesla and SpaceX posted a message on his social network X saying that Recall was like something out of the nightmarish sci-fi series “Black Mirror.” Michela Menting of the usually tech-friendly market research firm ABI Research told CNN that Recall is a “step backwards” for user privacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a tech civil liberties outfit, warned that Recall “creates a tempting target for hackers and for people who make malware.” And in the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office says it’ll investigate Recall to ensure it doesn’t threaten the privacy of citizens.


Are the skeptics onto something? They could be. Recall’s stored data would be a high-value target for spies and cyber criminals, especially if they could collect it in bulk from millions of machines.

But Microsoft claims it’s being very careful. Users can switch off the Recall feature if it makes them nervous. They can also tell Recall not to record specific websites, like banking or health care sites. Also, unlike AI systems like OpenAI’s, Recall runs only on your machine, with no data shared online. And Microsoft vows that it won’t access any user’s Recall data.

People view new Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface Laptops after a showcase event of the company's AI assistant, Copilot, ahead of the annual Build developer conference at Microsoft headquarters on May 20 in Redmond, Wash.Lindsey Wasson/Associated Press

Good enough for you? Data security maven Bruce Schneier, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, isn’t totally convinced. Schneier was an expert witness in a recently settled lawsuit against Google. The company’s Chrome browser offers an “incognito mode” for heightened privacy, but users discovered that incognito browsing data was still being sent to Google. In effect, the company deceived users about its privacy policies.

No wonder Schneier has mixed feelings about Microsoft’s AI innovation. “It’s a great idea, if you trust them,” he said in an interview. “This is a hard problem. We need to trust these things and they are untrustworthy.”


I’ve known Schneier for years, and if he’s worried, I’m worried. But only a little. Today’s PCs, stuffed with our most sensitive data, are already being ravaged by cyber criminals. It’s hard to see how Recall could make our computers even less secure.

Meanwhile, not a week goes by when I don’t ask myself, “where did I put that file?” Which is why I can hardly wait for Recall.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeTechLab.