Top Internet researchers attending the annual World Wide Web Conference in New York this week are wondering what it will mean when individuals can recall nearly every waking moment. It's a vision of the world where everyone becomes a digital pack rat.
Among the major topics on the agenda of WWW2004 are ways to make use of the treasure trove of personal data electronic devices create every day.
Researchers have gathered to hear technical papers on grand themes ranging from how to use the Internet to browse back through one's "life history" to how scientists can collaborate on Web-wide demographic or life-sciences studies.
"There is very little reason for anyone to throw anything away," Rick Rashid, head of research for Microsoft, said of how the latest Internet software, cheap data storage and networked communication, can help preserve personal memory.
Forget, for the moment, your mother's advice about the wisdom of spring cleaning. And suspend those nagging Big Brother doubts you may have about what can happen when mountains of personal data slip out into public view.
This is the realm of what's possible, not problematic, event organizers say.
Other presentations seek to solve smaller, but no less irritating issues, such as how to create a smarter "back" button on Internet browsers.
"The good news is that much of this stuff will turn out to be real, regardless of the initial hype," said Stu Feldman, head of Internet strategy for computer services giant IBM, and co-organizer of this year's WWW conference.
One paper describes how to publish instantly updating Internet textbooks, where chapters can be updated automatically as new information is uncovered and published.
Researchers are using tiny radio sensors to record a person's heart-rate, triggering immediate Internet alerts to one's doctor when dangerous activity is detected.
Another project involves taking advantage of the work done in Web semantics, or machine-readable languages, to make e-mail easier to search and use.
Net as substitute brain
Microsoft is looking into how to use personal " " to search for any document using not just the date and time they were created, but various emotional connections a person may associate with the event.
Rashid talks of defining the "memorability" of events.
One such Microsoft project is called "Stuff I've Seen," which allows Internet surfers to label and annotate all useful Internet content they find, then return to it later and find their previous annotations alongside the information.
Udi Manber, chief executive of A9, a unit of Amazon.com, said his company is studying ways to improve the usefulness of Internet search, including one demonstration project to allow users to create annotated diaries as they surf the Web.
In partnership with leading search engine Google, Manber showed off a method for people to retain the history of previous search results. Any Amazon account holder can go to A9's site and try out the search history system for themselves.
In a keynote speech to the conference, Microsoft's Rashid described what consumers might do with a terabyte of data storage that costs around $1,000 and is capable of holding more than 1 trillion bytes of computer data.
"You can store every conversation you have ever had, from the time you are born to the time you die," Rashid said.
A person could snap a picture with a 180-degree fish-eye view of one's surroundings for every minute of every day for the rest of one's life.
Microsoft researchers in the United Kingdom have built prototypes of such a life-recording device called SenseCam. They are gearing up for a second generation of photo capture systems no bigger than a necklace pendant, Rashid said.
"Obviously this raises a whole lot of issues about privacy and the control of one's personal information," Rashid said.
"But this is where we are going. It's already the case that kids are walking around with camera phones taking a lot of pictures. This is just an extension of that," he said.