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Total Recall: Storing every life memory in a surrogate brain

Microsoft Research's Gordon Bell finds digital immortality with MyLifeBits project

April 2, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Remember walking in to start your first job out of college? Or that diner you stopped in when you were on a road trip with your friends? The way the sky looked when you made that one perfect ski run, or the song that was playing when your daughter took her first step?

Gordon Bell, a longtime veteran of the IT industry and now principal researcher at Microsoft Corp.'s research arm, is developing a way for everyone to remember those special moments.

Actually, Bell himself wants to remember -- well, everything.

With memories piling up and continually slipping away, Bell is working to capture every moment of his life, so he can store it on his computer -- a Dell laptop with a dual-core processor. He wants the ability to pull up any picture, phone call, e-mail or conversation any time he wants.

The nine-year project, called MyLifeBits, has Bell supplementing his own memory by collecting as much information as he can about his life. He's trying to store a lifetime on his laptop.

For Bell, a key engineer and vice president of research and development at minicomputer pioneer Digital Equipment Corp. for 23 years and later a founder of the Computer History Museum, the effort is about not forgetting, not deleting and holding onto all the bits of your life. In essence, it's about immortality.

"I believe this is the quest for what a personal computer really is," Bell told Computerworld. "It's to capture one's entire life. A personal computer wouldn't be a machine that just sits on my desk. It's a repository. I think of the system as a personal memory. I feel immensely free by having all the information there."

Bell isn't talking about plastering a MySpace or Facebook page with information about the latest cool restaurant he went to or details of a conversation with another industry luminary. For him, recording memories is immensely personal.

"A lot of people put their lives on the Web. I'm not an advocate of that," he said, adding that he thinks revealing too much personal information online can be dangerous. "We're not life loggers because we're not publicly disclosing or talking about ourselves. This was built to be entirely personal, to aid the individual. You will leave a personal legacy -- a record of your life."

The project took seed in the late '90s when Bell decided to scan all of his books, articles, clippings and memos into a digital format. All of his paper records would be transformed. Just as his scanning project got under way, Bell read Bill Gates' book The Road Ahead (Penguin Books, 1996), in which the Microsoft founder wrote about his belief that someday people will be able to record and recall everything they've ever heard or seen.



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