To commemorate their new book – Total Recall– the Computer History museum recently hosted a lecture and "fireside chat" on the subject of eMemory and its ability to reshape our lives. This article is an account of that lecture and discussion, as well as a personal perspective on the subject matter.
For many years, Microsoft Researchers Gordon Bell (x-DEC VP) and Jim Gemmell have been exploring ways to record and easily access every moment in a person’s life, i.e. the proverbial trail of data that people leave behind. Since 1998, Gordon Bell- the principal researcher at the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Campus- has digitally archived every aspect of his life. Conversations, phone calls, photos, CDs, articles, home videos, e-mail — every piece of data Bell has created or consumed has been squirreled away into a database. In effect, he has offloaded the past 11 years of his life into a comprehensive electronic memory bank. This effort was the genesis of the MyLifeBits project at Microsoft Research.
Mr. Bell’s decade-long data dump has convinced Bell that the frailty of bio-memory — what everyone else has to work with — is about to become a thing of the past. He claims we are about to usher in an era where your every moment is recorded. Will we be able to find the signal (important and relevent information) through the noise (of extraneous recorded information)? That remains to be seen.
Advances in digital storage, digital recording and digital search are converging in a synergistic way to enable the e-memory revolution, according to the authors. People are already awash in a sea of information. If they are not already overloaded with files, papers, books, periodicals, etc they will soon be. Already portions of our lives are digitally captured every day. From the constant stream of e-mail to the GPS-stamped pictures we take on our Smartphones, pieces of ourselves are being stored on Facebook or YouTube or massive portable hard drives. How to make sense of it all?
The key to unlocking e-memory’s transformative power lies in harnessing mountains of recorded data to find the subject matter of interest. For example, Mr. Bell, who has a heart condition, tracks his weight daily and monitors the data pumped out by his pacemaker to get a changing snapshot of his well-being. The recorded information could be used to create a picture of one’s overall health. The ability to data mine our past would enable us to chart how much exercise we have been doing now in comparison with what we did four years ago. Such graphic tools and related tables could aid in medical diagnosis, treatment of diseases and ailments, and preventive health care – potentially a very useful tool for physicians and patients.
But what of the potential downsides when bio-memory shifts to bits and bytes? A hint of Big Brother lurks behind the notion that every aspect of life is recorded and stored, the authors say. What if the stored information falls into the wrong hands? How can the information be protected? How can the legitimate user be authenticated? What about backup in case of fire, earthquake or terrorist attack? Many unresolved questions arise. Among them are: access authentication, storage server robustness, file formats, security, client to server upstream and downstream bandwidth requirements, categorizing and cataloging stored information, memory search algorithms and retrieval strategies.
”What we’re doing is not really aimed at putting your whole life on Facebook or MySpace or wherever,” Bell said. “This is a memory aid and a recording aid, something you utilize at a personal level.”
But there’s another danger (besides the privacy issue) with such a personal memory aid; we could get so caught up in our own memories that we quit living in the present. Already, many of us reminisce about the "good old days." Could many of us with access to e-memory live in the past?
While the e-memory revolution might be inevetible, as the authors claim, the privacy, security, and technical implementation issues might delay its onset for longer than most might expect. Caveat emptor.