human being on Wed, 20 Nov 2002 23:08:01 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] software as brainboxing

// possibly similar to a previous post, the social technology
// described below sounds like a private-sector attempt at
// capitalizing on the same concept as Total Information
// Awareness by the US Homeland Security department, Inc.,
// or as a covert update to Microsoft's efforts with its
// Passport, and in particular HAILSTORM proposals. every-
// thing one does, thinks, imagines, in a searchable database.
// Ironically, the demo left out the person's 'passport', odd,
// as that is likely one of the first things to go in such a
// system, regardless whether it is public or private sector.
// this, on top of the news that Microsoft is making profits
// of 85% on its software, while its other divisions are
// recording losses. Microsoft & Poindexter are in business.
// (not to forget a clean-slate federal settlement either).
// and, what is the imperative to perfect human anomalies,
// is it to benefit us or just vast bureaucratic machinery?

Software aims to put your life on a disk
19:00 20 November 02
Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition
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 

Logging life

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 year.

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 instance.

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 the system.
"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.

Ian Sample

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