Microsoft Research Thinkers Tap Fountain of Youth with “Total Recall”

The jacket of Bell’s and Gemmell’s book. “Lots of people say, ‘Isn’t it healthy to forget?’” Gemmell says. “It’s really a bug in human memory, not a feature.”

REDMOND, Wash. – Sept. 23, 2009 – Unlike the average person, Gordon Bell doesn’t forget.

For most people, the brain simply experiences more than it can handle. The past inevitably fades away, leaving a fuzzy picture that looms into one’s consciousness intermittently at best.

But not for Bell. For more than a decade, the principal researcher at the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Campus has digitally archived every aspect of his life. Conversations, phone calls, photos, CDs, articles, home videos, e-mail — every piece of data Bell has created or consumed has been squirreled away into a database. In effect, he has offloaded the past 11 years of his life into a comprehensive electronic memory bank.

This decade-long data dump has convinced Bell that the frailty of bio-memory — what everyone else has to work with — is about to become a thing of the past. In the newly published book “Total Recall,” Bell and his Microsoft Research colleague Jim Gemmell outline a vision of a not-too-distant future where people can digitally record and preserve their entire lives. This ability to remember everything — “the e-memory revolution,” Bell and Gemmell call it — corrects a problem we’ve had for the past 10,000 or so years. “Lots of people say, ‘Isn’t it healthy to forget?’” Gemmell says. “It’s really a bug in human memory, not a feature.”

A memory upgrade might be just around the corner because improvements to digital storage, digital recording and digital search are converging in just the right way. In this century, people will be awash in a sea of information. Already portions of our lives are digitally captured every day. From the constant stream of e-mail to the GPS-stamped pictures we take on our Smartphones, pieces of ourselves are being stored on Facebook or YouTube or massive portable hard drives.

A digital data trail

Gordon Bell with two Deja View cameras that he uses to help digitally record his life.

Bell and Gemmell have been exploring ways to record and easily access this trail of data people leave behind. Bell’s archiving adventure began in 1998, when he decided to go paperless and eliminate clutter (“You have a much freer life when everything goes into cyberspace,” he says). With help from evolving hardware — an automatic camera, an arm strap that logged biometrics, a voice recorder, a pedometer, a desktop scanner — he archived as much of his daily life as possible.

Around 2001, Bell surfaced for air and discovered he had amassed hundreds of thousands of files. The shrinking cost of storage had made the archiving easy, but that was only half the battle. “Gordon discovered he had created this big mess for himself that he couldn’t do much with,” Gemmell says. “I realized this had become a very interesting software problem.” The experiment turned into a Microsoft Research project called MyLifeBits, which Gemmell created in 2003.

Since then, the two have worked on ways to mine the data mountain of Bell’s past in ways beyond a quick search. The key to unlocking e-memory’s transformative power lies in harnessing this data to, say, create a picture of one’s overall health. For example Bell, who has a heart condition, tracks his weight daily and monitors the data pumped out by his pacemaker to get a changing snapshot of his well-being.

Changing how people interact

For more than a decade, Bell (left) and co-author Jim Gemmell have explored ways to record and easily access the trail of data we leave behind.

The sweeping changes e-memory will bring to health, education and the workplace will also extend to our personal interactions, the authors say. “What happens now when, instead of the rosy-colored concept of the time I spent with my daughter, I now have a record and can look at it and say, ‘Oh jeez, I could have handled that better?” Gemmell asks. “It could give me real and valuable insight to myself and help make me a better person.”

But what of the potential downsides when bio-memory shifts to bits and bytes? A hint of Big Brother lurks behind the notion that every aspect of life is recorded and stored, the authors say. They admit that people will face plenty of privacy concerns as the e-memory revolution becomes reality, and they explore the topic in the book. Bell is quick to point out that he’s not a life-blogger but rather a “life-logger.” “What we’re doing is not really aimed at putting your whole life on Facebook or MySpace or wherever,” Bell says. “This is a memory aid and a record aid, something you utilize at a personal level.”

However you want to frame it, the e-memory revolution is inevitable, Bell and Gemmell say. They unwaveringly believe that the age of total recall will have enormous benefits for the individual and society at large. The revolution won’t happen overnight, of course. It will come gradually as new, easier-to-use recording devices come to market and better software helps us mine the database of our past. But it will happen. The three streams feeding the revolution — digital recording, digital storage and digital search — are converging and moving us toward the ability to permanently store and access our lives through e-memory.

Maybe, just maybe, these digital streams are flowing from an electronic fountain of youth, Bell says. When everything you’ve ever done is stored digitally, in a way you will live forever. “In the end, you have immortality,” he says. “You have a record of where a life has been.”

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