Life Bits

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 2005

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Gordon Bell through the years. He has earned my respect and admiration with accomplishments such as being responsible for the design of Digital’s VAX computer and shepherding the Internet at the National Science Foundation at a critical time in its maturation. Now he has gained a new and unique status in my eyes as the guinea pig in a fascinating experiment at Microsoft Research called MyLifeBits. It is an attempt to record digitally everything that Gordon reads, types, hears, as well as a lot of what he sees.

Memory is now so inexpensive that we can have terabyte stores on our home computers. This means that the Memex proposed by Vannevar Bush in 1945 as a machine to record all of life is now within our reach. Gordon is certainly giving it a try. Every picture he has, everything he reads, every action on his computer, all his telephone conversations – all are recorded. Microsoft even has a “sensecam” that he can wear, a tiny camera that automatically takes about 2000 pictures a day using an algorithm that decides when to take a picture based on changes in the environment or in body signals like heart rate.

The technology of life bits is rather straightforward, although there are interesting innovations in search, organization, and links. What fascinates me, however, is the philosophy of all this. Is this a good idea? Is it something I want? What are the implications for the future?

My first thought was that I wouldn’t want this. It would be too intrusive, and like some kind of Heisenberg principle, the process of recording would change the way I live. Moreover, it would be useless – a giant sludge pile of wasted bits that I would never access.

I have been having second thoughts, however. I’m sure the intrusive part could be handled technologically so everything would be automatically recorded and indexed. I’d probably get used to it, forget that it was being done, and start acting normally.

I think about how I treat my data now. I’ve saved every digital picture I’ve ever taken – more than 10,000 of them. I’ve even saved the ones that were almost totally black, out of focus, or had my finger over the lens. I tell myself it doesn’t cost anything and it’s not even worth the bother of erasing the bad ones. However, I don’t look at my pictures very much. There are too many of them, and instead of helpful file names like “close-up of finger over lens” or “landscape in total darkness”, all the pictures have names that the camera thought was a good idea, like “P509437.” Probably the average number of times that I’ve seen a given picture is close to one.

I have also saved all my email since the dawn of time. Almost every corporation has policies about email retention (not), and there have been high profile trials where embarrassing and incriminating email has come to light. However, in spite of these policies and risks, practically everyone I know has saved all of his or her email. How can you throw it away? As bad as it is, it’s your life in there. I even feel a sense of loss when I discard an old hard drive. I feel like there is some of me in that old drive.

I’m not sure that I would feel the same way about my life bits. Would it really be me in those life bits, or just a collection of life’s minutia? It seems to me that much of life is interstitial, that is, happening between things. A biography is filled with just the highlights; the rest is filler. I remember how often I have come home from work thinking that I had done nothing all day. Then to make it worthwhile, out of this nothingness something noteworthy happens.

Someone likened the idea of saving life bits to having a traditional cabinet full of paper files. It’s not that you want everything in there, but that you can’t predict what will be useful in the future. I can’t imagine myself randomly browsing my life bits, but I like the idea of being able to “Google” my life to find relevant information. Certainly, intelligent search and automated generation of metadata are keys to any usefulness that life bits would have. For example, the life bits system should automatically annotate my nameless pictures by correlating picture dates with my calendar and with GPS tracking.

I’m amused by the thought that life itself and life bits could have a recursive relationship. I imagine myself looking at my life bits. Later on I look at the life bits of me looking at my life bits. Then still later -- well, you get the idea.

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I’m not sure that life bits was the examination he had in mind. I haven’t decided yet if keeping life bits is a good idea, but it sure is an interesting one.

Robert Lucky