Dear Darpa Diary
By William Safire
WASHINGTON -- Unless you work for the government or the Mafia, it's a great idea to keep a diary.
I don't mean the minute-by-minute log that Florida Senator Bob Graham keeps in tidy, color-coded notebooks describing his clothes, meals and haircuts. That echoes the mythical Greek Narcissus.
Rather, I have in mind the brief notation of the day's highlight, the amusing encounter or useful insight that will someday evoke a memory of yourself when young. Such a journal entry — perhaps an e-mail to your encoded personal file — can now be supplemented by scanned-in articles, poems or pictures to create a "commonplace book." You will then have a private memory-jogger and resource for reminiscence at family gatherings.
But beware too much of a good thing.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, stimulates outside-the-box thinking that has given us the Internet and the stealth bomber. On occasion, however, Darpa goes off half-cocked. Its Total (now Terrorist) Information Awareness plan — to combine all commercial credit data and individual bank and academic records with F.B.I. and C.I.A. dossiers, which would have made every American's life an open book — has been reined in somewhat by Congress after we privacy nuts hollered to high heaven.
Comes now LifeLog, the all-remembering cyberdiary. Do you know those hand-held personal digital assistants that remind you of appointments, store phone numbers and birthdays, tip you off to foibles of friends and vulnerabilities of enemies, and keep desperate global executives in unremitting touch day and night? Forget about 'em — those wireless whiz-bangs are already yestertech.
Darpa's LifeLog initiative is part of its "cognitive computing" research. The goal is to teach your computer to learn by your experience, so that what has been your digital assistant will morph into your lifelong partner in memory. Darpa is sprinkling around $7.3 million in research contracts (a drop in its $2.7 billion budget) to develop PAL, the Perceptive Assistant that Learns.
For those who suspect that I am dreaming this up, get that lumbering old machine in your back pocket to access www.darpa.mil/ipto, and then click on "research areas" and then "LifeLog." You are then in a world light-years beyond the Matrix into virtual Graham-land.
"To build a cognitive computing system," says proto-PAL, "a user must store, retrieve and understand data about his or her past experiences. This entails collecting diverse data. . . . The research will determine the types of data to collect and when to collect it." This diverse data can include everything you ("the user") see, smell, taste, touch and hear every day of your life.
But wouldn't the ubiquitous partner be embarrassing at times? Relax, says the program description, presumably written by Dr. Doug Gage, who didn't answer my calls, e-mails or frantic telepathy. "The goal of the data collection is to `see what I see' rather than to `see me.' Users are in complete control of their own data-collection efforts, decide when to turn the sensors on or off and decide who will share the data."
That's just dandy for the personal privacy of the "user," who would be led to believe he controlled the only copy of his infinitely detailed profile. But what about the "use-ee" — the person that PAL's user is looking at, listening to, sniffing or conspiring with to blow up the world?
The human user may have opt-in control of the wireless wire he is secretly wearing, but all the people who come in contact with PAL and its willing user-spy would be ill-used without their knowledge. Result: Everybody would be snooping on everybody else, taping and sharing that data with the government and the last media conglomerate left standing.
And in the basement of the Pentagon, LifeLog's Dr. Gage and his PAL, the totally aware Admiral Poindexter, would be dumping all this "voluntary" data into a national memory bank, which would have undeniable recall of everything you would just as soon forget.
Followers of Ned Ludd, who in 1799 famously destroyed two nefarious machines knitting hosiery, hope that Congress will ask: is the computer our servant or our partner? Are diaries personal, or does the Pentagon have a right to LifeLog?
And so, as the diarist Samuel Pepys liked to conclude, to bed.