Microsoft's "MyLifeBits Project"
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SOFTWARE AIMS TO PUT YOUR LIFE ON A DISK
By Ian Sample
Wednesday, November 20, 2002
Engineers are working on software to load every photo you take, every letter
you write -- in fact your every memory and experience -- into a surrogate
brain that never forgets anything, New Scientist can reveal.
It is part of a curious venture dubbed the MyLifeBits project, in which
engineers at Microsoft's Media Presence lab in San Francisco are aiming to
build multimedia databases that chronicle people's life events and make them
searchable. "Imagine being able to run a Google-like search on your life,"
says Gordon Bell, one of the developers.
The motivation? Microsoft argues that our memories often deceive us:
experiences get exaggerated, we muddle the timing of events and simply
forget stuff. Much better, says the firm, to junk such unreliable
interpretations and instead build a faithful memory on that most reliable of
entities, the PC.
Bell and his colleagues developed MyLifeBits as a surrogate brain to solve
what they call the "giant shoebox problem". "In a giant shoebox full of
photos, it's hard to find what you are looking for," says Microsoft's Jim
Gemmell. Add to this the reels of home movies, videotapes, bundles of
letters and documents we file away, and remembering what we have, let alone
finding it, becomes a major headache.
By the time he speaks at December's Association for Computing Machinery
Multimedia conference in Juan Les Pins, France, Bell says he will have
logged everything he possibly can onto his MyLifeBits database.
Apart from official documents like his passport, he will post everything
from letters and photos to home videos and work documents. All his email is
automatically saved on the system, as is anything he reads or buys online.
He has also started recording phone conversations and meetings to store as
audio files. The privacy and corporate security risks are clear.
Of course the system takes up a huge amount of memory. But Bell's group
calculates that within five years, a 1000-gigabyte hard drive will cost less
than $300 -- and that is enough to store four hours of video every day for a
Each media file saved in MyLifeBits can be tagged with a written or spoken
commentary and linked to other files. Spoken annotations are also converted
into text, so the speech is searchable, too.
To recall a period in his past, Bell just types in the dates he is
interested in. MyLifeBits then calls up a timeline of phone and email
conversations, things he has read and any images he recorded.
The system can also be used to build narratives involving other people,
events or places. Searching for the name of a friend would bring together a
chronological set of files describing when you both did things together, for
Meet the ancestors
Although MyLifeBits is essentially a large database, it could gradually
become a repository for many of our experiences. Now that many mobile
devices contain photomessaging cameras, you could save everyday events onto
"Users will eventually be able to keep every document they read, every
picture they view, all the audio they hear and a good portion of what they
see," says Gemmell.
Bell believes that for some people, especially those with memory problems,
MyLifeBits will become a surrogate memory that is able to recall past
experiences in a way not possible with the familiar but disparate records
like photo albums and scrapbooks. "You'll begin to rely on it more and
more," he believes.
A really accurate, searchable store of events could also help us preserve
our experiences more vividly for posterity. Doug de Groot, who works on
computer-generated beings called avatars and other types of digital "life"
at Leiden University in the Netherlands, says Bell's system could eventually
form the basis for "meet the ancestor" style educational tools, where people
will quiz their ancestors on what happened in their lifetimes.
A system like MyLifeBits was first suggested in 1945, when presidential
technology adviser Vannevar Bush hatched the then farsighted idea of an
infinite personal archive based on the emerging digital computer. His ideas
also inspired the internet archive website.
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