[EAS] Life Bits (again)
Peter J. Kindlmann
pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Tue Jul 26 23:37:25 EDT 2005
It just occurred to me that the comments in the previous item
really have been enlarged to include this. --PJK
IEEE Spectrum | May 2005
By Robert W. Lucky
I've had the pleasure of working with Gordon Bell through the years.
He has earned my respect and admiration with accomplishments such as
leading the development of Digital Equipment Corp.'s VAX computer and
shepherding the Internet at the U.S. National Science Foundation
during a critical
time in its maturation. Now he has gained a new and unique status in
my eyes as the guinea pig in a fascinating experiment at Microsoft
Corp.'s Media Presence Research Group in San Francisco, called
MyLifeBits. It is an attempt to record digitally everything that
Gordon reads, types, and hears, as
well as a lot of what he sees.
Memory is now so inexpensive that we can have terabytes stored on our
home computers. This means that the Memex, proposed by Vannevar Bush
in 1945 as a machine to record all of life, is now within our reach.
Gordon is certainly giving it a try. Every picture he takes,
everything he reads, every action on his computer, all his telephone
conversations-are recorded. Microsoft even has the SenseCam, a tiny
camera he can wear that automatically takes about 2000 snapshots a
day using an algorithm that decides when to take a picture, based on
changes in the environment or in body signals like heart rate.
The technology of MyLifeBits is rather straightforward, although
there are interesting innovations in search, organization, and links.
What fascinates me, however, is the philosophy of all this. Is this a
good idea? Is it something I want? What are the implications? My
first thought was that I wouldn't want this. It would be too
intrusive, and, like some kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle,
the process of recording would change the way I live. Moreover, it
would be useless-a giant sludge pile of wasted bits that I would
I have been having second thoughts, however. I'm sure the intrusive
part could be handled technologically-everything would be
automatically recorded and indexed, so I'd probably get used to it,
forget that it was being done, and start acting normally.
I think about how I treat my data now. I've saved every digital
picture I've ever taken-more than 10 000 of them. I've even saved the
ones that were almost totally black, out of focus, or obstructed by
my finger. I tell myself it doesn't cost anything and it's not even
worth the bother of erasing the bad ones. However, I don't look at my
pictures very much. There are too many of them, and instead of
helpful file names like "close-up of finger over lens " or "landscape
in total darkness," all the pictures have names that the camera
thought was a good idea, like "P509437." Probably the average number
of times that I've seen a given picture is close to one.
I have also saved all my e-mail since the dawn of time. Almost every
corporation has policies about e-mail retention (or rather, e-mail
nonretention), and there have been high-profile trials where
embarrassing and incriminating e-mail has emerged. In spite of these
policies and risks, however, practically everyone I know has saved
all of his or her e-mail. How can you erase it? As bad as it is, it's
your life in there. I even feel a sense of loss when I discard an old
hard drive. I feel as if there is some of me in that old drive.
I'm not sure I would feel the same way about MyLifeBits. Would it
really be me in those life bits, or just a collection of life's
minutiae? It seems to me that much of real life is interstitial, that
is, happening between things. A biography is filled with just the
highlights; the rest is filler. I remember how often I have come home
from work thinking that I had done nothing all day. Then, to make it
worthwhile, out of this nothingness something noteworthy happens.
Someone likened the idea of saving life bits to having a traditional
cabinet full of paper files. It's not that you want everything in
there, but that you can't predict what will be useful. I can't
imagine myself randomly browsing my life bits, but I like the idea of
being able to Google my life to find relevant information. Certainly,
intelligent search and automated generation of metadata are keys to
any usefulness that life bits would have. For example, the system
should automatically annotate my nameless pictures by correlating
picture dates with my calendar and with GPS tracking.
I'm amused by the thought that life itself and life bits could have a
recursive relationship. I imagine myself looking at my life bits.
Later on I look at the life bits of me looking at my life bits. Then
still later-well, you get the idea.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I'm
not sure that MyLifeBits was the examination he had in mind. I
haven't decided yet if keeping life bits is a good idea, but it sure
is an interesting one.
ROBERT W. LUCKY (F), now retired, was vice president for applied
research at Telcordia Technology in Red Bank, N.J.
(rlucky at telcordia.com).
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