Q&A: Carrying your life in your pocket

Gordon Bell looks to augment his memory by gathering the many bits of the days of his life

A top Microsoft Corp. researcher hopes that someday technology can help us easily recall the events of our lives, not just the weddings and graduations, but also all the little things that fill our days. Gordon Bell, a veteran IT guru and a key member of Microsoft's research arm, is well into a 10-year project, dubbed MyLifeBits, to create a database of personal images, video, archived e-mails, phone conversations, GPS coordinates and printed documents that he can use to supplement his own memory.

In an interview with Computerworld, the 75-year-old Bell said he hopes his project helps convince others to take on similar efforts to collect the bits and pieces of their everyday lives and store them in an electronic cloud for easy access.

Microsoft's Gordon Bell wearing his SenseCam.
Microsoft's Gordon Bell.

What is your ultimate goal with this project? The goal really was to explore the future and put a vision out there that I think we'll all be working toward. You'll have memories that you can pass on from generation to generation and you pass on as much as you're willing to do. There's that aspect of being able to have a kind of immortality.

If you're passing information on to another generation, do you edit it or give them everything? I'm willing to give them everything. I think this is where you need a lot of tools to deal with all the information. You have to organize things. As my children go through it, they're not so interested in what I did at work but they want to recall a trip we all took together. They'll use it for recalling our memories together.

Have you found any information you now wish wasn't saved? No. I really have never had that feeling. It's always the other. I wish I had the whole thing. In the spirit of being a collector, it's always a feeling of, 'My God, it's not complete.' I haven't deleted anything. I just don't believe in it.

Where will all the information be stored? I'm right in that ambivalent state of where is all of this going to reside. Maybe there will be a public archive or a way of having all of your life in the cloud. It's not there for everybody to see but it's just there as a place holder for you. It started out that there would be an appliance and that would be your memory extension. That idea held for a long time. I still think of an appliance but I'm not sure how much of that will be backed up in the cloud.

We're all so self-obsessed these days, posting updates on Facebook and Twitter about the smallest details of our everyday lives. Could MyLifeBits make us even worse? The issue is life logging as opposed to life blogging. We're not advocates of putting that stuff in a public place. People who believe they need to put all of that stuff out in public and make statements in public, we're very skeptical that you want to do that. I don't think you gain anything by spilling your guts about your actions.

What about the privacy and security issues that are raised with all of this personal information sitting in the cloud? We're not introducing anything that isn't already out there. I think it may come down that your electronic memory is not [legally] discoverable. That's my private memory and you can't make me disclose it. [Also], I think cloud security will be dealt with. The overall security will be improved.

In five, 10 or 20 years, what devices will be available to record all these aspects of our lives? I think a virtual record of your life will be carried in your pocket. Certainly in 20 years, cell phones will have a pretty good memory of what's going on in your life. With the changes in storage, GPS and cameras and audio and video, they're important collectors. And then we'll have the storage to save everything whether it's in the cloud or on your home server.

Were you a collector as a kid? How far back does this go for you? I don't' think I was really a serious collector. One time I went around the neighborhood and collected all the different manufacturers of razor blades just to see how many there were. Well, that's pretty weird. I've taken about 14 bicycle trips in France and each one was extensively logged -- all the places I've stayed. The trip was measured in stars per meal.

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