Digital hoarding: How AI can help you delete all those unused files


It might be no trouble for your computer to store massive amounts of files, but it can be a major burden on your mind, the environment and your wallet. Researchers hope artificial intelligence will soon help digital hoarders to clean out their old files.

Our computers are packed full of unread mails, long forgotten files and old holiday photos. But somehow we just can’t face deleting these kinds of files. They could be important – and who wants to delete a nice memory?

“It’s like having a messy attic. It’s a burden, and yet nobody throws anything away,” says Ute Schmid, Professor of Applied Computer Science and Cognitive Systems at the University of Bamberg.

But it’s important to be able to forget and delete things, especially in everyday working life, she says.

“Too much information only hinders us.” Work processes are less efficient and problems are harder to solve. Not to mention that it makes it difficult to actually find really important information.

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Help from artificial intelligence

That is why Schmid and her research team are developing a system that uses artificial intelligence for targeted deleting and forgetting.

It’s something that can be a big challenge for some people, particularly those who suffer from “digital hoarding”. About 4% of the world’s population compulsively hoards, says psychologist Joerg Wolstein of the University of Bamberg.

But nobody knows exactly how many people hoard both in their homes and on their computers.

These people compulsively collect files, spend hours sorting music tracks and hoard external hard drives. “Deleting scares them,” explains Wolstein. “They are afraid of forgetting something else or losing control.”

Schmid’s research could help here. “Above all, unstructured people who are not so organised can benefit from this,” she says.

Delete these five files?

The project, “Dare2Del” (dare to delete), suggests five files that a user can delete when they close a program. The system provides a reason why the document can go in the trash.

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For example, there may already be a copy in another folder or it’s an outdated version. In the end, the user decides whether or not to delete.

The user can also change the reason for the deletion. “Artificial intelligence should learn from humans as much as vice versa,” says Schmid. For example, they can specify that they never want to delete photos of their dead grandmother.

Or a company could stipulate that user data must always be deleted after six months. After all, storage space costs the industry a lot of electricity and money.

Deleting to save energy and money

With the energy needed for data storage rivalling that of global air travel, cost-oriented and environmentally friendly companies are already calling on their employees to delete data regularly.

At automotive supplier Brose, this has already freed up 50 terabytes of storage space and saved €180,000 (RM815,940), says Frank Martin, head of information technology at Brose.

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Schmid’s team, which is one of eight interdisciplinary teams that are part of the German Research Foundation’s “Intentional Forgetting in Organizations” programme, wants to test how much people trust the deletion suggestions of artificial intelligence.

The user design is still completely open and the team is also looking at usability and interactive learning. After all, says Schmid, artificial intelligence, too, first has to learn to delete. – dpa