Microsoft researcher stores digital life

Microsoft researcher stores digital life

Summary: Senior Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell has been recording his life for a decade. He talks to ZDNet about the ideas behind the project, what the future holds, and why he wants a database

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Chronicling our lives has been part of our culture for as long as we have kept personal diaries. Today, technology offers many different ways of recording our thoughts and feelings, which makes the task far easier.

Ten years ago, Gordon Bell, a principal researcher at Microsoft, set out to chronicle his life by recording everything that happened to him. Visit him in his office and you will face microphones and video cameras. As he travels, he goes "laden down with stuff".

The Microsoft-funded project is still going, and Bell sees it as "one of the most important things I have done".

Seventy-four-year-old Bell is no stranger to ambitious projects. A computer engineer, he joined Digital Equipment Corporation (Dec) now part of HP, in 1960 and is best known as the designer of the some of the early PDP minicomputers and of the VMS (virtual machine extended) operating system in the 1980s. The operating system was for a while Unix' most important competitor with widespread adoption in industry, commerce and academia, and is still in use as OpenVMS.

Bell talked to ZDNet UK about the challenges posed in chronicling a life at the Digital Lives conference, hosted by the British Library in London on 10 February.

Q: How did you get involved with Microsoft?
A: Nathan Myrvold contacted me 10 years ago and said "we want you to run research" or "we want you to find someone to run research", neither of us can remember which.

I don't want to run anything so I thought I would help him find someone. But from there I started with Microsoft.

How would you describe what you do now?
It was really to capture everything in my life. The project was called 'MyLifeBits', and in 2001 I said that what we want is to do is capture everything. That became a kind of "let's see what all this is about".

Basically, I came at it from an engineering perspective of "what good is this" and I firmly believe that what we are doing and what we have done is the natural progression for the PC. It is the ultimate personal computer. This is what the computer is all about.

This is a memory surrogate, so I think of a machine as a memory aid and then, incidentally, your life ends up there as a residue because everything goes through there.

From a Digital Lives perspective this is what you live and breathe, and everything is there, so what more do you want?

Do you see the MyLifeBits project as a device or as software or something else?
Actually, I see it as the collective set of data that we call 'e-memory'.

[The project] has evolved from something that was more a personal computer — where everything is kept in one place, on the computer — to what we have today where the information, the memory, is distributed in all kinds of places and in all kinds of devices, in particular the mobile phone.

That is itself a personal computer with a lot of function, and is also a place where there is a lot of capture. All of that information has to map back into the server space for your memory.

This has come at the right time. I know that when I was working, I went to Bill [Gates] at one of the anniversaries of the PC, and at the even people were asking: "What's next?". I told them that I know what's next.

So what you are saying is, don't worry about the format?
Exactly. Get on with it. Whether you decide to throw it away or not, that is another thing. The fact that you have a computer working on this stuff is important. Look at the archiving...

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Colin Barker is based in London and is Senior Reporter for ZDNet. He has been writing about the IT business for some 30-plus years. He still enjoys it.

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