[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 
<http://jove.eng.yale.edu/pipermail/eas-info/2005/000767.html> should 
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 
never access.

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).

More information about the EAS-INFO mailing list