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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Life Bytes

Air Date: Week of

The time is not far away when you will be able to digitally capture your entire life – every sound, sight, phone call, everything you do--on your computer and put it all on a database the size of a matchbox for easy retrieval. Steven Cherry of Spectrum Magazine reports on Microsoft’s MYLIFEBITS project.


CURWOOD: More and more these days it seems our lives are being oversupplied with information. Our hard disks can store hundreds of gigabytes of data. Countless e-mails, Web pages, and MP3s come at us. Even with the help of powerful search engines, finding what we want can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But don’t worry. As reporter Steven Cherry explains, researchers are on the case.

CHERRY: What would it be like to have every minute of your life recorded, archived, searchable? What if you could Google a perfectly complete database of your time on this planet? That’s the dream of a feisty, 71-year-old computer scientist, Gordon Bell.

In the 1970s, Bell made a name for himself as the designer of some of the first computers that weren’t mainframes. In the 1980s, he was in charge of the network that became the Internet. Today, Bell studies databases for the giant Microsoft Corporation at a tiny research center in downtown San Francisco. It was there, about seven years ago, that he started digitally documenting his entire professional life. He calls the project “MyLifeBits.”

BELL: MyLifeBits started out as my attempt to capture all of the easily archive-able content, articles, books, communications (email, letters), my music, CD’s, videos that I had. Essentially, anything that was in a bit form, and to put that all into cyberspace, into my computer.

CHERRY: Soon, Bell began recording his every phone call, every keystroke on his computer, every Web page he visits. They were captured and put into a database. Yet, something was missing.

BELL: We realized there was a whole other world that we were not dealing with, and that was capturing stuff that was going on in real time. That is, taking pictures.

CHERRY: At the same time, Microsoft researchers in England invented a new camera. It’s called a “SenseCam” and it takes up to 2,000 photographs a day based on changes in vibration, temperature, lighting and so on. The SenseCam was the breakthrough Bell had been waiting for.

BELL: MyLifeBits captures everything that goes through the computer, including phone calls. We enhanced it, and now there’s a whole branch that’s starting up, which Jim Gemmell has coined as CARPE, which stands for Continuous Archiving and Recording of Personal Experience.

CHERRY: Jim Gemmell, a brilliant researcher in his own right, has spent the past four years refining the MyLifeBits database and figuring out techniques for pulling the right fact out of the database effortlessly.

GEMMELL: One of the things we appreciate most about MyLifeBits is this incredible freedom from having to intentionally remember a lot of things. The more that you automatically capture, and the ability you have to get back at it, the more powerful it is.

CHERRY: That power will eventually show up in Microsoft’s operating systems. For now, the company is experimenting with some practical applications.

For example, Microsoft’s researchers in England gave SenseCams to hospital patients who suffer from profound memory loss, including one woman with a rare degenerative disorder of the neurons. Each night, her husband downloads the 2,000 pictures the SenseCam took of her day. The couple would review the pictures together. The process gave her back the memories she otherwise would have quickly lost.

Meanwhile, Gemmell, Bell, and a host of other researchers have come to rely more and more on MyLifeBits in their own lives.

GEMMELL: I just bought and sold a house. And of course there were questions and problems of various things, so one thing was we had to tell who had done the tile in our bathroom and what kind of tile it was, very precisely. I was able to go in MyLifeBits and quickly go through the hundreds of pages of renovation documents that had been scanned, and find out exactly what tile it was and who it was from, and we were rapidly on to having it replaced properly and solving the problem.

BELL: I’d like to add that, in fact, with all of the hurricane damage, and all of the things that are going on now, this is probably the most important advertisement for putting your life on a hard drive. I mean, certainly I won’t claim that a hard drive is more reliable, necessarily, than having all of the paper and things like that, but certainly people’s photographs, videos, wills, bills, various kinds of certificates. I think if people had scanned all of that stuff, and have gone the way I’ve gone, I feel comfortable that, in fact, I can withstand a hurricane and retrieve copies of every important document that I have.

CHERRY: Frank Nack, a Dutch computer scientist based in Amsterdam, has given a lot of thought to the issues raised by MyLifeBits. Do we always want to have at our fingertips the answer to each and every question about our past? The act of forgetting, he says, makes our life bearable, and is closely related to some essential cultural concepts, such as forgiveness and absolution. Would removing this human imperfection do more harm than good? Would we be as creative? As free?

We'll find out soon enough. In ten years time, all your life bits will easily fit onto two or three hard disks the size of matchboxes. Your smartphone-sensecam will dangle casually around your neck, snapping away. Can’t remember what you wore on that blind date last Saturday? How many glasses of Chardonnay you drank? Who you called on the phone the next day and what you talked about? Where you were, what you did every minute that weekend? Let's just open up that database of yours, the matchbox containing your life bits, and take a look.

For Living on Earth, I'm Steven Cherry.

CURWOOD: Steven Cherry is a reporter for Spectrum Radio, the broadcast edition of Eye-Triple-E Spectrum magazine. To read more about the “LifeBits” project visit our website, Living on Earth dot org. But you won’t find Steven Cherry’s life bits, he’s deleted them.



MyLifeBits Project

IEEE Spectrum article "Total Recall"


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