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Digital age may bring total recall in future

By Taylor Gandossy
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(CNN) -- Have you ever wished for a backup brain -- a device that could remember everything in your life from the smallest of details to your most memorable moments?

Computer engineer Gordon Bell, a researcher for Microsoft Corp., is working on just such a mechanism. He's trying to devise what amounts to a digital diary, a searchable database that contains digitized versions of nearly everything in his life.

"As a research project, the idea is being obsessed with recording everything I can," said Bell, the head researcher in a project called MyLifeBits for nearly five years at Microsoft.

There are two parts to the project. The first is Bell's experiment with life storage -- capturing his papers, faxes, phone calls, photographs and home movies in digitalized form. The second part focuses on developing software that would support this type of lifetime library on anyone's computer.

"The quest is to essentially build a surrogate memory. Something that's as good as my own memory, that I can use it as a supplement, and will remember everything that I should have remembered, that came to my ears, eyes, whatever," Bell said of his experiment.

"The interim objective is to make this kind of system available, to gradually put these kind of capabilities in all of our PCs."

Conceivably you could someday be able to rehear every conversation you had when you were 20 and search for all photographs of your cousin John.

But would this actually be useful? And would people other than computer experts want to use it? Bell said he thinks they would.

A family with kids, for example, has "their computers, and they've got a lot of homework, and at some point in time, they'll probably want all of that stuff recorded," he said. "And the family would have their music, all of the content they would have in their machines available. It's really keeping all of your digital assets around and alive forever."

He added, "As more and more information goes from analog to digital, essentially from physical items to electronic items, why, you basically need to have a way of preserving all that and also dealing with all the problems that conjures up."

The MyLifeBits software will include tools to record Web sites, instant message conversations and television and radio transcripts, according to the project's Web site.

Memory devices through existing technology

Sunil Vemuri's project is similar but on a slightly smaller scale. Two years ago, as a doctoral student in the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he set out to develop a device designed to combat memory problems.

His project's focus was a wireless device that sat on his hip, much like a BlackBerry. The device recorded audio from conversations and other happenings in his life, and once recorded, sent the audio files to a computer that translated them into text. These text files were searchable by key words, and through contextual information such as weather or location, also recorded when the file was created.

Since the beginning of his project, Vemuri has co-founded a company called QTech Inc., which like his dissertation project, seeks to address memory problems through technology. "We're focused on remembering things that were said, heard, things like that," Vemuri said in a phone interview.

But for memory problems that involve physical items, such as missing car keys, or a remote control, you wouldn't be able to use one of Vemuri's devices. Products such as key locator would likely prove more useful.

But Vemuri doesn't think that affects the potential usefulness of QTech Inc.'s products.

Locating "keys and name-finding are the two things people most often cite as the memory problems they'd like to address, so hopefully by covering 50 percent of it, we'll make a good number of people happy," he added.

Rather than invent gadgets to conduct these recordings, the company looks to transform existing communication devices, such as cell phones, smart phones and computers into memory aids, Vemuri said.

Smart phones -- ones that connect to the Internet -- and mobile phones are an "optimal platform for a memory aid," he said. "Because you know, people carry mobile phones all the time, and I haven't heard of anyone lately calling it intrusive."

Vemuri said he couldn't say when these devices would be released to the public but added, "Hopefully, [it's] not too long from now."

Privacy concerns abound

Both initiatives present a number of concerns. How are these files protected? Memory expert Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of California at Irvine, said in an e-mail, "People who have had their e-mails subpoenaed in litigation might have something to say about this."

Both Bell and Vemuri said they are acutely aware of potential problems.

"The privacy concerns are severe," Bell said. But society and laws will adjust to the advances in technology, he said, adding, "They're exactly the same issues that occur in a company or among individuals. And I'd say society's resolving those issues."

Vemuri said, "This is a problem that we take very seriously -- the protection of people's privacy and making sure that they're well-aware, as much as can be, of the presence of these devices.

"What we can do is just help people who are carriers of the device, and people who are near the device, make them as aware as possible that there is a recording device around."


QTech Inc. co-founder Sunil Vemuri is developing memory aids that use communication devices such as cell phones.




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