Don't Forget to Back Up Your Brain

Friday , November 16, 2007

By Corinna Underwood



As any Baby Boomer will tell you, Americans have more information to cram into their memories than ever. Yet, as we age, our capacity for recall grows weaker.

But what if you could capture every waking moment of your entire life, store it on your computer and then recall digital snapshots of everything you've seen and heard with just a quick search?

Renowned computer scientist Gordon Bell, head of Microsoft's Media Presence Research Group and founder of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, thinks he might be able to do just that.

He calls it a "surrogate memory," and what he considers an early version of it even has an official name — MyLifeBits.

"The goal is to live as much of life as possible versus spending time maintaining our memory system," Bell explains.

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Perfect surrogate memory would be supplemental to, but ultimately as good as, your original memory.

It could let you listen to every conversation you had when you were 21 or find that photograph of the obscure date you had on summer vacation.

As Bell says, it would "supplement (and sometimes supplant) other information-processing systems, including people."

MyLifeBits isn't quite there yet, but Bell's nevertheless "gone paperless" for the past decade as part of the project, keeping a detailed, digitized diary that documents his life with photographs, letters and voice recordings.

So that he doesn't miss out on important daily events, Bell wears a SenseCam, developed by Microsoft Research, that takes pictures whenever it detects he may want a photograph.

The camera's infrared sensor picks up on body heat and takes snapshots of anyone else in the room, adjusting itself as available light changes.

Not only does MyLifeBits record your life's digital information, but the software, developed by Bell's researchers Jim Gemmell and Roger Lueder, also can help you retrieve it.

"MyLifeBits is a system aimed at capturing cyber-content in the course of daily life with the goal of being able to utilize it in various ways at work, in our personal life — e.g. finances, family, health and for our future memory," Bell says.

Simply enter a keyword such as "pet," for example, and the search engine will find all available information on your childhood puppy.

It also can run more intricate searches, allowing you to cross-reference all associations linked to certain people or places.

If you're having difficulty remembering where you were and who you were with on a certain day, MyLifeBits would remind you.

And just how much data is needed on a day-to-day basis?

"All the bits that we can that will likely have value for our memory in the near and long-term future, a few bits just for the hell of it," Bell says. "We end up with more bits because we need them for relationships."

Still, is recalling every single detail of an entire lifetime too much? How can anyone guess what's going to be important 20 years from now?

"It is impossible to know what will be required in the future," says Bell. "Furthermore, recording everything allows one item to be used to find another item that may have been created at the same time."

Bell says MyLifeBits could have another important benefit: It may actually improve your real memory.

According to Bell, being reminded of someone in a photograph or screensaver strengthens our recollections.

We constantly are reminded of other events when we delve into our past to find snippets for which we are looking. This reinforces a whole host of links to other memories we otherwise may have forgotten.

But since all this is digitally recorded, what if hackers find it? Couldn't MyLifeBits be a threat to privacy and a boon to identity thieves?

Bell doesn't seem overly concerned.

"MLB introduces no new problems that aren't present in modern computer systems," he said, "except that we present a larger cross-section that makes all the content potentially more valuable."

Additional passwords are being built into the most sensitive documents, he explains.

An even bigger hurdle for the project is cost-efficiency.

The Microsoft team predicts that by 2010, a 1-terabyte (1,000-gigabyte) hard drive will cost less than $300.

That could easily hold all text documents, voice files and photographs of a person's complete life experience — but if it came to video, it would be only enough for four hours per day for an entire year.

On a somewhat smaller level, Sunil Vemuri, co-founder and chief product officer of Hyderabad, India-based QTech, Inc., has been working to develop a "memory prosthesis" that can help people with common, day-to-day memory problems.

QTech's "reQall" service provides a toll-free number that allows clients to use any phone to record reminders of events, appointments or thoughts as and when needed.

It then saves and organizes the recordings and sends daily reminders as needed.

"ReQall is meant for anyone who forgets, for anyone with a day-to-day memory problem," Vemuri says. "The aim of reQall is to provide a long-term service that is available to everyone right now."

Vemuri sees great growth potential for reQall. He wants his team to refine the service to suit users' individual memory needs, whether that involves helping patients remember doctors' appointments, friends remember birthdays or even journalists remember specific quotes.

More ambitious is Vemuri's "What Was I Thinking," a project he worked on while a graduate student at MIT.

That centered around software running on a Compaq iPaq personal digital assistant, similar to a Palm Pilot, which then synced to PCs running Mac OS X, Windows or Linux. It was capable of recording data and using a number of search tools to help the user find forgotten memories, using a range of built-in triggers.

"Many things can serve as good memory triggers: the smell or taste of homemade cooking, the smile on a child's face, a good joke, the roar of the crowd when your sports team scores, etc," Vemuri explained on his MIT Web page.

"In our case, the device records audio from conversations and happenings, analyzes and indexes the audio in an attempt to identify the best memory triggers, and provides a suite of retrieval tools to help the wearer access memories when a forgetting incident occurs."

The device's retrieval tools included an analysis of audio recordings to determine if conversations were heated, calm or humorous and a transcription of audio files to text files by means of a speech-recognition program.

In this way, the text files could be searched for specific words or speech patterns that can trigger those elusive memories.

In the future, some variation on these memory prostheses could change our lives on many levels, from settling a squabble over last week's football scores to assisting an elderly patient remember if she has taken her medication.

We rely on our hard drives for saving our music, photographs, e-mails and videos — so perhaps life-logging software and memory prosthetics are simply the next stage in the evolution of our relationship to the computer.