Lifelogging is dead (for now)

A funny thing happened on the road to capturing everything: Hardware failed to keep up, and social media made it redundant.

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Credit: Thinkstock

The name Gordon Bell has become synonymous with lifelogging.

Bell is the legendary engineer and researcher emeritus who recently retired from Microsoft.

Bell started wearing a camera around his neck in 2000. But not just any camera. He wore an automated one that took pictures every 30 seconds. He was the main subject in a long-term experiment called the MyLifeBits project while a principal researcher at Microsoft.

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Gordon Bell: lifelogger and retired Microsoft researcher.

The idea was to record, capture and store every last bit of data that would later help him have a machine-enhanced photographic memory. In addition to the camera, Bell captured all his articles, lectures, presentations, memos, academic papers, home movies, IM transcripts, phone calls and more.

The idea was based on the work of Vannevar Bush, who in 1945 envisioned a machine called the Memex (a portmanteau of "memory" and "index"), a kind of desk that would scan, link and instantly retrieve everything from snippets of information to entire books.

Bell's vision built on Bush's, with the addition of the camera and the capturing of what we now call "quantified self" data -- measurements of heart rate and other variables in the human body.

I recently talked to Bell about his lifelogging project and the camera he wore around his neck, and I was shocked to learn that he no longer wears the camera.

The whole lifelogging project "wasn't something that was bringing a lot of value to my life," he told me.

The original vision for the project in 2007 was this: "We'll put all this stuff on my hard drive," then use software to index and retrieve it rapidly.

But Bell's foray into the kind of all-encompassing lifelogging he attempted was too early. In the future, he said, we could see the price of memory come way down, as well as breakthroughs in battery technology and artificial intelligence (A.I.). But for now, it's not possible to automatically record everything using a mobile device. And it's hard to manage and use the terabytes of data generated.

Meanwhile, Bell said, we do have a version of Bush's Memex: "It's the smartphone."

The combination of the sensors in the phone, the connected smartwatches and fitness wearables, the location tracking, the apps that harvest data and, above all, the social media oversharing, together constitutes a lifelog. It's just that we don't look at it that way.

Ambivalence about lifelogging by the industry and the public means all this data isn't being gathered up into anything resembling a cohesive view of one's life or a handy way to recall the past, for the most part.

The closest thing we have is an application called Digi.me (formerly known as SocialSafe), which collects all that social media oversharing and enables it to be used for something like lifelogging. (Bell is an adviser to and investor in Digi.me.)

Digi.me works on the freemium model, costing either nothing or $6.99, $16.99 or $27.99 a year, depending on how many features you need and how many accounts you have. Of course, the vast majority of social media users have no interest in Digi.me. Either social media itself is enough of a lifelog, or they don't care about total recall.

Either way, lifelogging is in a weird place right now. More data is being generated than ever before, but it's hard to bring it all together and hardly anybody wants to.

Remembering to forget

Another problem, which Bell didn't mention, is that the public appears to be suffering from data fatigue. It seems that the people working hard to forget things outnumber the people who are trying to remember things.

Everybody slams email, which remembers everything and lets you do detailed searches going back years, and praises more ephemeral alternatives, such as messaging or texting.

Millions of people have left Facebook in recent years, only to move to Snapchat or other services -- meaning they moved from a social site that remembers to one that forgets.

I believe this apparent impulse to forget is not what it seems. In reality, people are just suffering from information overload and data anxiety. Collecting huge amounts of personal data -- even large numbers of pictures -- simply creates a problem without solving one. The problem it creates is: How do you manage all this data? How do you back it up? Store it? Annotate or tag it?

Email is a perfect example. Email's bad reputation is the result of inboxes out of control, and the horrible feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety they produce. People want to flee the overload.

How the future will save lifelogging

As Bell points out, the future will probably bring us massive storage in small form factors and at low cost. Battery improvements will enable cameras that never stop taking photos and can run all day.

Above all, the revolution in artificial intelligence should be able to eventually organize all our captured data, freeing us from the dread of information overload and the need to manage huge data sets.

We'll interact with our data using future versions of Siri-like virtual assistants. Instead of searching through terabytes of data, we'll simply ask our assistant: "Hey, what was the name of that restaurant I enjoyed in London a few years ago?"

Better hardware plus artificial intelligence should do both the capturing and the retrieval of all our personal data automatically. In fact, if trends continue in their current direction, retrieval will be so automated that our virtual assistants will offer facts not only from the Internet, but also from our own experiences and memories.

Next-generation earbuds may whisper in our ears, smartwatches may nudge us, and smartglasses may display just-in-time information based on our extensive lifelogging histories. For example, when we meet someone we'll instantly start receiving relevant information about when we met that person before, what our mutual social connections are and more.

I think we'll find that everybody really does want to do lifelogging. They just don't want more work, information overload or new data management problems.

Once those problems are solved by better hardware and advanced A.I., lifelogging and the photographic memory it promises will be just another background feature of every mobile device we use.

Gordon Bell stopped lifelogging. But his grandchildren will live in a world where lifelogging is just another part of life.

This story, "Lifelogging is dead (for now)" was originally published by Computerworld.

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