Total Recall: how the e-memory revolution will change everything.

‘The two offices of memory are collection and distribution’ – Samuel Johnson

‘Someday we will be able to store everything we see and hear’ – Bill Gates

Imagine your whole life being lifeloggeTotal Recalld: digitised, recorded – every minute of your waking life, every book you’ve read; every song you listened to; every television programme; every email, tweet, phone call and webpage; being monitored continuously by GPS with any photos you take tagged onto the route; medical data like pulse rate, blood pressure, skin resistivity; and more, whatever else becomes possible. Gordon Bell would like this to happen, and he’s doing it to a certain degree with himself. Last week he gave a Friday Evening Discourse on the subject at the Royal Institution.

MyLifeBits is a Microsoft research project, with Bell being an experimental subject, inspired by the Memex concept proposed by Vannevar Bush in 1945. The idea is to produce a proof of concept rather than a product, and to answer a set of questions about the data*:

  • Can you organise it?
  • Can you find it?
  • When you find it – do you know what it is?
  • Can you find it again?
  • Is it of any value? And to whom?

There are three streams of technology required to make this a usable concept: recording/sensors; storage; and recall: search, analyse, and present the data.

Originally it was thought that 1TB of data would hold a life, but it was soon realised that that gave a much too low resolution record, and 10TB is now considered to be the quantity of data. The data would need to be fully searchable by text, and with text and audio annotations and hyperlinks. The e-memory would also have to be automatically captured, organised & summarised somehow.

At present the main recording device used is the SenseCam, which takes a digital image every twenty seconds or so through a fisheye lens; it is expected that this could be enhanced with audio recording. Using GPS, and items such as the BodyBugg, other data can be captured as well, although I was disappointed nothing was said about smart textiles.

Benefits of this are seen as enhancing memory (both as a surrogate memory extension, and improving physical memory by reviewing life events); improving health (both by personal monitoring and by pooling of data to produce clinical studies); helping at work (or possibly helping the boss at work by monitoring performance?); aiding learning (e.g. recording lectures); and benefiting your life generally, but as important, your afterlife – your descendants could replay your life. Digital immortality, your cyber twin.

A benefit that was quoted was that using the SenseCam has been found to be extremely useful for individuals with severely impaired memory, although as I see it this is a benefit which could easily have been shown without recourse to MyLifeBits; and as an example of the commercial pressures on the development and use of products, the BodyBugg is an electronic medical monitor that is marketed for ‘calorie management’.

The digitization is intended to encompass physical objects, too. Grandpa left you an unwieldy legacy? Copy it and give it away. If it’s the family bible you can scan it, if it’s a piece of furniture take a photo of it. Remove the physicality altogether, and free up loads of space in your house.

I think this whole thing raises an awful lot of questions about the legality, morality, and ethics of total recall, and about how we relate to the machines in our lives. Who owns the data? Who will have access to the data (New Labour would have loved to get their hands on this level of information)?. Where will privacy boundaries be drawn – how will you know whether others in public toilets have paused recording, for example?

A number of questions were asked by audience members after the discourse, none of them were answered satisfactorily, if at all. And unfortunately, I don’t think any of the questions in the previous paragraph, nor any of the bulleted questions above (after the asterisk) were answered in this talk; I was hoping for more information about how the data will be captured, stored, etc, and nothing was said about the possibility in the future of cybernetic organisms with implants feeding data directly into computers. Questions about ethics, legality, etc, were answered with something along the line of ‘someone will have to work that out’  The talk came across to me as a little woolly and slightly lacking direction – I think the problem may be that Gordon Bell is proselytising, he so obviously thinks that this is the way ahead, seeing this digitisation and removal of physicality as the ultimate goal of personal computing. Some may welcome the advent of their whole life being available in this way, some may find it chilling. I would love my photos to be on a timeline with GPS positioning, for example, but I’m not sure I would like everything in my life to be available for me to look at again, let alone anyone else.

The event should shortly be available to listen to on the Ri website so you can decide for yourself, or you can read the book – it may be that the ethical & moral issues are dealt with in there, although I haven’t read it myself yet.

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