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Notes from ACC04 -- Gordon Bell on MyLifeBits
Jamais Cascio, 6 Nov 04

The talk I was most looking forward to seeing Saturday at the Accelerating Change Conference 2004 was the one by Gordon Bell, from Microsoft's Bay Area Research Center, talking about MyLifeBits. MyLifeBits is an early attempt at what I call a "personal memory assistant" -- a device which would stores copies of everything you see and hear, for later retrieval as needed. MyLifeBits isn't quite that powerful; it only stores personal documents, web pages browsed, selected images, audio records of phone calls, and a few other file types. It's really intended as a vehicle to allow engineers to figure out what the barriers would be for the fuller version.

So far, they've learned a few key things: meta-data is really the core of something like MyLifeBits -- the annotations and contextual information that makes a stored file meaningful; of the various kinds of meta-data one could automatically or manually add, date and time is ultimately the most important; once something is stored, the challenge then becomes user interface -- how do you find something that you've stored? These lessons are more common sense than big surprises, but the Microsoft BARC team has taken some important steps towards figuring out some solutions.

Two more items of note: BARC's term for a device to do constant capture of what the user hears and sees is "CARPE" (continuous archival recording of personal experience); and the idea of a system to store copies of everything you've ever read, written or heard was anticipated nearly 60 years ago, in a 1945 article called "As We May Think," by Vannevar Bush. If you haven't read it, you should -- it's a wonderfully prescient vision.

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There's some assumptions that I see being made with the creation of things like MyLifeBits and CARPE and such, and they're that 1) most of our lives are interesting and worth recording and 2) if things aren't recorded, they're lost, and that's bad.

Maybe I'm just being naive, but it seems like having those "once in a lifetime" moments will soon be gone, as everything we experience will be recorded, and can therefore be brought back and re-experienced. But I'll read the Vannevar Bush article before any further blathering.

Posted by: nile on 7 Nov 04

Nile, I don't think the emotional impact of experiencing once-in-a-lifetime events will be lessened by the ability to replay a recording of them. But your point that most of our day-to-day lives aren't worth archiving is a good one. Thing is, we can't predict when we will see or experience something that is worth recording -- the amazing swarm of birds flying at dusk in Rome, the car accident, the UFO flying overhead. We also can't predict when we will realize later that we should have taken note of something -- the name of that restaurant, the brand of wine, what the spouse actually said (not what s/he claims to have said).

The rapidly-declining cost of massive storage (down now to about $1/GB, and still falling) makes the continuous archiving of recorded experience inevitable, if only because the space cleared up isn't worth the time and effort required to delete something.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 7 Nov 04



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