Gordon Bell

The master researcher wants us to supplement our memories by storing bits of our lives in the cloud.

One researcher at Microsoft Corp. hopes that someday we'll all be able to easily recall our lives, and not just the major moments like weddings and graduations, but all the little things that fill our days as well.

Gordon Bell, a computer industry pioneer and a principal researcher at Microsoft's research arm, is well into a 10-year archiving project, dubbed MyLifeBits. The 75-year-old IT innovator has been working to supplement his own memories by amassing a database of images, video, e-mails, phone conversations, GPS coordinates and printed documents.

Bell wants to archive vacations, workdays, casual walks, conversations and books he's read -- his whole life -- and thinks it won't be long before the rest of us do, too. His new book, Total Recall, co-authored with Jim Gemmell, tracks the project.

In an interview with Computerworld, Bell talked about storing all of that sensitive data in the cloud, our social networking self-obsession, whether there's information he wishes he hadn't saved, and what devices will help us collect the bits and pieces of our everyday lives.

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 stayed. The trip was measured in stars per meal.

What's 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. There's that aspect of being able to have a kind of immortality.

If you're passing all this information on to another generation, do you weed through all the chaff to give them just the good stuff, or do you give it all to them? 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.

Has there been any information that you look at now and wish you hadn't saved? Never. 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 this 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 placeholder 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.

Do you think if everything we do, everything we say, everywhere we go is recorded, it will make us censor our own actions? Would you want your kids to know you scalped concert tickets or gossiped about a friend? I don't know about that. I think you kind of forget that it's happening, that it's being recorded

We're all so self-obsessed these days, posting updates on Facebook and Twitter about the smallest details of our everyday lives.

Could this make us even worse? The issue is "lifelogging" as opposed to "lifeblogging." 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 privacy and security issues with all of this information sitting out there? 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.

If you plan on storing this in the cloud, doesn't that raise even more security issues? I don't think it's any [less secure]. I think cloud security will be dealt with. The overall security will be improved. Every six months, you see that someone's PC has been stolen or moved and another million passwords or credit cards have been stolen. Frankly, I think [cloud security] will be better than what we have today, where it's physically so distributed.

In five, 10 or 20 years, what devices will we have to help us record all these different aspects of our lives? I think virtually a 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.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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