May 19, 2010 -- We now live in an age where it’s possible to completely document our every activity to an astounding degree. The advent of personal computing devices has enabled the capture, recording and recall of everything a person reads, writes and hears. Few have taken this "life logging" as far as computing pioneer Gordon Bell of Microsoft Research, who made a recent visit to the Library to talk about the MyLifeBits project (external link). A webcast of the event is available.
Bell’s pioneering work includes a long stint at Digital Equipment Corporation and much work involving scalable systems and multiprocessors.
Since 1998 Bell has worked on MyLifeBits, a system to digitally store everything in a person’s life, including accumulated articles, books, correspondence, financial and legal records, memorabilia, photos, telephone calls, time-lapse photos, video and web pages.
Bell noted that a person’s life is essentially a "a bunch of transactions" and described MyLifeBits as "a transaction processing system" for capturing it.
Bell is concerned that the exponentially increasing amounts of personal digital artifacts arriving at the portals of museums and libraries will provide a new challenge to institutions accustomed to dealing with an analog person’s boxes of papers and memorabilia of past millennia.
Organizing, retrieving, preserving and protecting these fleeting, bit-based artifacts over the long-term will be the contemporary archivist’s greatest challenge. As Bell said during his presentation, "we have more things to use as recorders so we can record more things about ourselves than we could ever need."
Far from a narcissistic exercise (he described his own life as being "9/10 mundane"), Bell called MyLifeBits an "aid to bio-memory for life and afterlife," an effort to catalog and document activities to provide a comprehensive memory aid, originally inspired by Vannevar Bush’s MEMEX (external link) from 1945. Additionally, Bell’s personal harvest provided a rich testbed for software developers at Microsoft working on a variety of database, capture and access technologies.
"All this is really possible because of three streams of technology," Bell said, noting that advances have to happen in recording, storage and recall in order to bring it together in a way that makes sense.
On the recording side, Bell experimented with a number of interesting capture devices, including Microsoft Research’s SenseCam (external link), a wearable digital camera designed to take photographs passively, without user intervention, while worn. He also carried around an audio recorder, noting that "most of the information is really contained in the audio channel." Additionally, he utilized tools such as a global positioning system, software to track his activities on the computer and various biometric devices that kept track of his heart rate over time. "I’ve had about 3.13 billion heartbeats in my lifetime," he said.
Advances in storage have made it possible to economically capture the various streams of data, and he noted that "we will see terabytes in our pocket and petabytes in our homes within the next decade." Capture capacity is one thing, but "the computer community really should be thinking that the goal is to store things forever," he said.
Microsoft’s research is exploring a number of ways to recall the information and put it in context, including Time Card, a device for the home designed to display a digital record of a single person’s activities that incorporates digital media of a variety of types and which puts that record in an appropriate context.
The MyLifeBits project completed in 2007, with the final results described in the 2009 book Total Recall, written with fellow Microsoft researcher Jim Gemmell.
Bell’s interest in archives and libraries comes naturally. He was a founding board member of the Computer History Museum (external link) in Mountain View, CA, and his own place in computer history is assured. Bell joked that "a terabyte is ok, but that’s a pretty low-resolution life. A high resolution life is somewhere around 10 terabytes." With that yardstick in mind, Bell has assuredly led a high resolution life.