Microsoft researcher stores digital life

q&a Senior Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell has been recording his life for a decade. Now he wants a database.

Gordon Bell

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 (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's 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 February 10.

Q: How did you get involved with Microsoft?
Bell: 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?
Bell: 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?
Bell: 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 event 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?
Bell: 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 with people sitting and gnawing on each piece of data, and you know it is not a task for humans at all. It is unfit for human consumption.

So you should just digitize everything?
Bell: You can digitize a substantial amount and for the stuff you can't digitize, it is a question of how much you want. There are feelings about the past but, in terms of the future, it is a question of how much you want to guide people.

You know, there was a survey they had (at the British Library) which showed that people don't really understand e-mail and how to handle it, and file it, and so on. You know, I think that there is not as much knowledge as you think about this. I think a lot of people do not understand what a file is. People say I wrote a letter, but how do I ever find the thing again?

They see it as just like a magic typewriter that lets them write a letter but if they want to change anything, or move it, then: "That's magic." Computers are so easy to use, but then you have a kind of training issue I think.

Some people want to keep everything?
Bell: Keep it, absolutely. Do not throw it away.

But you can't keep everything, where would you put it?
Bell: Physical stuff? Then there is no reason not to discard everything but once it is digitized, don't throw anything away. Don't ever delete an e-mail.

What do you see as the next step?
Bell: I want to see that more and more of the stuff that we've done gets into the product (MyLifeBits). What happened is that we were on a course to get this implemented with (the Microsoft file system) WinFS. Then WinFS got thrown out of Vista. You see all of the stuff that the archivists are talking about (at the conference) really revolves around the data and the metadata.

You see, if I want to send a bunch of my files, then the files will need metadata. Well, metadata I probably already have, and it should be there, but that probably requires a much more robust file system, a database file system.

The problem is that by not having a database (for MyLifeBits), what's happened is (Microsoft has) seven databases now. For media, I've got Zune and another one but, actually, you have four, all pointing at the same song. For Money, I've got a database, for Outlook, I've got a database, for photos, I've got a database. And a lot of these databases have information that, if they could copy each other, using a common database would be much better.

So when you see Steve Ballmer your first words are: "I want a database?"
Bell: That's right. The other thing is transaction processing, because a message comes in and it gets lost in the database. Time and place are great search terms, so they are both in there. And "place"--well, we are seeing great things happening around place.

But I don't think people got what happened in this last decade, in that we ended up with this factor of 1,000 in data-storage capability. Remember we were at a gigabyte and now on a desktop it is a terabyte. And that factor-of-1,000 increase is a big deal. Half-a-billion hard-disk drives were manufactured last year.

Look at this library we are in (the British Library), and with 1,000 drives you probably have the whole thing. We are at another amazing time, and it is a storage thing and the fact that video is becoming so prevalent. That's going to have a major impact.

Colin Barker of ZDNet UK reported from London.

 

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