At age 71, computer pioneer Gordon Bell is as active, combative, and restless as ever. The legendary creator of Digital Equipment Corp.'s seminal VAX line of minicomputers in the mid-1970s is now a sort of researcher-at-large for Microsoft Corp., working in a tiny San Francisco center devoted to research on databases large and small.
Like many of us, Bell occasionally forgets things. But unlike most of us, Bell has both a tinkerer's heart and the wherewithal to launch a major software research project to make forgetfulness itself, like vinyl record collections and coffee-stained address books, yet another encumbrance remedied by the computer age.
His project, MyLifeBits, is the digital distillation of, almost literally, his every waking minute. It started out as an offhand experiment, but today its goal is nothing short of changing the way we use computers, and by extension, the way we live. At its heart, MyLifeBits is a big database on a personal computer, into which go the correspondence, keyboard-based chores, and even the sights and sounds of everyday life. It automatically swallows up and indexes e-mails, keystrokes, recorded phone calls, images, video, and every Web page that graces its user's computer's screen.
For the past two years, MyLifeBits has been capturing real life with an unobtrusive miniature still camera that Bell [left] wears around his neck, pendantlike. Clever sensors detect light, heat, and position. Software tells the SenseCam, as the device is called, whether to snap a picture. At day's end, MyLifeBits grabs all those images and the sensor readings too. In short, just about everything that is digital, or that can be digitized, goes into the database--and is easily recalled weeks or years later. Researchers elsewhere have been capturing life bits for decades, but until Microsoft got in the game, no one had put so many varieties of them into a searchable and indexable database. The ability to sift so much information is impressive and, to many, intimidating.
If privacy is your overriding concern, MyLifeBits may not be for you. But if managing the details of a full and hectic life is a problem, the benefits of the system would be undeniable. Who was that venture capitalist you sat next to on that trans-Atlantic flight last year? Where is that Web site with a schematic and parts list for a radio-controlled clock? You saw it a few weeks ago. Which little hotel in Hong Kong did your brother-in-law recommend? What was that nice wine at the sales-meeting dinner last June? Countless details such as these, some pivotal, others trivial, could be as easy to call up as the names in that dog-eared address book.
What's in it for Microsoft? The Redmond, Wash.based giant sees a way to straighten out our increasingly information-tangled lives--and an opportunity to reinvigorate the sluggish PC market. Take the MyLifeBits software, the SenseCam, and the low cost of memory of all kinds, which keeps plunging, with no bottom in sight. Mix in Microsoft's considerable marketing and research clout and you begin to envision the PC being reborn as the personal mainframe--a terabyte repository of all our life bits. And its indispensable data-collecting accessory, a commercialized version of the SenseCam--a camera-enhanced cellphone, perhaps--will be made intelligent by an operating system designed in, yes, Redmond, Wash.
Bell's MyLifeBits project is now the epicenter of a far-reaching initiative at Microsoft that goes by the name "memory augmentation." At last count, three researchers were assigned to the software and three more to the camera. At least a dozen more spend some or all of their time extending the software's capabilities. The research is intertwined with a number of other projects and goals at Microsoft, making it impossible to say precisely how much R&D funding is involved. But make no mistake about its importance to the company--and to computer users everywhere. Consider just one part of memory augmentation, the area of computer science known as information retrieval--essentially the ability to look through a data collection and find the right item. At the field's top conference this year, Microsoft researchers accounted for more than 20 percent of the entire technical program of 71 papers.
Information retrieval is also where MyLifeBits research will first show up in Microsoft Windows Vista (aka Longhorn), the long-awaited major revision of the omnipresent Windows operating system. By all accounts, Vista will put search and retrieval front and center. The metaphor of files and folders--the central way we've been interacting with computers for almost 30 years--will be largely hidden from view [see "Interface Lift," in this issue]. Instead, the operating system will index all your documents, try to guess which ones are important to you at the moment, and let you intelligently browse and search through them if it guesses wrong.