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Monday, November 2, 2009

Total Recall

I watch the CSPAN channel. I especially like viewing the lectures and interviews with authors on the program Book TV.

Yesterday Book TV featured Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell speaking at the Computer History Museum in California. Their book is titled Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution will Change Everything!

E-memory (in contrast to bio-memory) involves the large-scale digitization of an individuals life experience. The authors on-going project is to record and archive their personalized e-memories and maintain them in a huge database indexed with as many data points as possible. Their goal is to study the issues surrounding how this information can be stored, organized, structured, and accessed - as well as to research the tangible benefits and outcomes.

Working under the auspices of Microsoft, Bell and Gemmell have experimented with E-memories since 1998, and learned legions in the process. The technology of using computer memory to record every detail about a person's life has improved greatly in recent years. It is fair to say that in the very near future average people will be able to digitally preserve all of their experiences and easily recall them whenever they wish - at will. It's really just an iPhone upgrade away.

Gordon Bell was head of Engineering at Digital Equipment Corp, and now is a principle researcher at Microsoft. He's written several books, including High Tech Ventures: The Guide for Entrepreneurial Success and Computer Structures: Readings and Examples. His associate, Jim Gemmell, is also a senior researcher at Microsoft (fun job if you can get it).

Both men wear equipment such as BodyBuggs, GPS receivers, digital video cameras, assorted recording instrumentation, and customized portable computers to store and catalogue their every move and bodily function. This is a 7 days per week, 24 hours per day, ongoing project. Steps have been taken to insure their privacy, but data security is clearly one of the probing questions that still needs to be addressed.

On the face of it, this over abundance of self-documentation seems intimidating and rather pointless. But it turns out that many interesting events in life happen unplanned and unexpectedly. In hindsight one can never predict what will happen or what information you would want to recall in the future. Therefore, by recording everything in your life, from youth through old age, you and your ancestors will always have access to a detailed and precise permanent record of any event.

How would all of this information be organized? It turns out that most of information is unstructured data - utility bills, phone conversations, spontaneous walks in the park, and a stream of email messages and web pages visited. The researchers refer to their individual data stores as "life-bits." All of their personal data, collected in real time, can be time-stamped and cross-linked to specific locations via GPS coordinates.

By creating links between all our their daily telephone and computer-based interactions (e.g. scheduling, communications, documents, web-browsing, video records, etc), a life-story emerges. Spikes and patterns appear in histograms, such as when important life events occurred. Aside from the practical matter of having documentation of everything, interesting trends emerge.

Gordon Bell, acting as a guinea pig for this on-going human experiment, has had all of his "legacy" photos and documents scanned. He has little or no paper in his life, but stores his life-bits on a really huge hard drive at his office at Microsoft (which is fully-networked and backed up). Bell has converted his entire life-history, in all aspects, into binary numbers. He estimated that it requires only about 200 data types, much of which are self-defining and self-archiving. He looks forward to the day when he gets his utility bill electronically in XML format, so that it will not have to be scanned and into his personal data store.

Once can foresee the day when every person on the planet will be assigned an IP v6 address which will be their life-time identifying number. No more social security numbers. No more alphabetical names to fuss over, just a logical address somewhere in the ether of the digital cloud.

What's an example of how this information might be used? Well, perhaps someday you would want to view a video of Grandpa catching the big fish he often told the story about, and while you were at it, check out what he had for lunch on that day and listen to the conversation he had with his fishing pals.
It turns out that bio-memory is pretty good at indexing all of our life experiences via the dimensions of geographic location and date-time stamp.

Although structured data and tags can also be superimposed on the raw information to provide additional categories of classification, it tuns out that the human memory most often refers to these two basic and fundamental search algorithms for data retrieval.

Think of life-bits as a vast repository of your personal data, from your first dirty diaper right right up to your final breaths - and it will include all of the messy details in between. Retrieving information from it would be like "googling yourself" on steroids.

At first I was put off by the concept. Why would I, or anyone else be so interested in my boring life? But when you hear about some of the practical applications that potentially stem from implementing this technology, then you begin to see the potential.

For example, my son is about to embark an a very expensive college education. He may end up spending up to $200,000 at a 4-year private institution. It is known that the human mind can only absorb and record a small fraction what we hear in classroom lectures. Not only that, over time the long-term retention of memory drops off significantly. Wouldn't it be nice if my son could have a permanent record of his entire college experience along with searchable and retrievable records of the people he met and spoke with at college? Not only would it be very useful information to reattain throughout life, but perhaps it could also be re-sold to another person seeking a college education - but at a hefty discount (say 50% off the brink-and-mortar price). It would create an entire new market in second-hand college educations.

Health monitoring is another interesting application. BodyBuggs and devices such as Bluetooth-enable scales are on the market already. These devices monitor our vital signs - from heart rate to blood pressure, to changes in BMI and body weight over time. Having a long-term history of our physical profile can aid medical practitioners in the diagnosis and treatment of ailments. The data can be graphed and presented to your medical team. It could aid medical research.

Looking back at my own life, I've gone to a lot of concerts in the past 40 years or so, and my bio-memory of them is beginning to fade. I have saved the concert programs from just about everyone of those concerts, and I store them in boxes located in my basement. It takes up lots of space. It would be nice to have a more permanent and easily accessible digital record of what transpired within the walls of those concert halls across the world.

Copyright issues aside, I can bring my Samson Zoom H2 digital audio recorder along to a concert today. It will allow me to make CD-quality recordings right onto flash memory. But that technology was not available in the 70s and 80s. If it had been, I would have used it. All of the concerts I've attended over the decades would have been indexed by date and geographic location. The concert programs would be scanned directly into my personalized life-bits database and cross-referenced against the corresponding audio recordings for future reference.

The future is here, but unfortunately I have to rely on my decaying bio-memory to recall most of the past. I hope that my neural-memory index doesn't get corrupted, since I don't have a bio-backup. Future generations may be more fortunate thanks to the emergence of e-memory technology and data warehousing.