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Microsoft Creating Virtual Brain Fri Nov 22, 1:02 PM ET James Maguire,

Researchers at Microsoft’s (Nasdaq: MSFT – news) Media Presence Lab are developing a “virtual brain,” a PC-based database that holds a record of an individual’s complete life experience. Called MyLifeBits, the project aims to make this database of human memories searchable in the manner of a conventional search engine.

“By 2047, almost all information will be in cyberspace — including all knowledge and creative works,” said one of the project’s leaders, Gordon Bell. “The most significant benefit will be a breakthrough in our ability to remotely communicate with one another using all our senses.”

To enable this remote communication, Bell’s group is developing a technology that he refers to as telepresence. “Telepresence technology provides for both space and time shifting by allowing a user to communicate with other users via text, graphics, voice, video and shared program operation.”

Multimedia Synapses

The core of the MyLifeBits project is an online PC-based system that holds everything that can be digitally stored about an individual. Microsoft researchers refer to it as a sort of “virtual shoebox” that holds all of a person’s e-mail, home movies, meeting details and other memorabilia.

Unlike a real shoebox, say the researchers, MyLifeBits would allow a user to input a keyword like “pet” to see and hear all material relating to a childhood pet.

In effect, MyLifeBits would allow a user to run a Google (news – external web site) search on his or her life. The database would be searchable in many ways, including by date, allowing a businessperson to find all communications associated with a given meeting, for instance.

MyLifeBits also would be capable of creating personal narratives by cross-referencing chronological material related to two or more people in an individual’s life.

It’s All About Me

“It sounds like weblogging run amuck,” Aberdeen Group analyst Dana Gardner told NewsFactor, explaining that the current trend toward Internet self-expression sometimes veers toward the obsessive.

Yet Gardner also sees the value of MyLifeBits, especially as a time capsule for future historians.

He noted that there is currently an overcapacity problem in network fiber, storage and processing capability. “We need to find the application that will utilize the infrastructure that’s available, and this sounds like a way of doing that,” he said.

Guinea Pig

Microsoft researcher Bell is himself the guinea pig for the prototype system. He is uploading a massive amount of personal memorabilia, from his trips to Alaska to his biking excursions in France. All of his e-mail is stored on the system, as is his passport, all of his work documents, and recordings of all of his phone calls.

Each of his myriad media files is tagged with a verbal or written identifier, allowing them to be cross-linked to other files. His spoken tags are converted into text files to make them searchable.

Bell said he believes that in the future, this process will be streamlined. “We can optimistically assume that by 2010, speech input and output will be ubiquitous and available for every system that has electronics,” he said.

Computer Memory – and Security

One of the project’s chief logistical hurdles involves developing a cost-effective system with the memory capacity of the human mind.

The Microsoft researchers forecast that within five years, a 1,000 GB hard drive will cost less than $300. While this would provide enough capacity to store up to four hours of video per day for a year, it is still not enough to store all of an individual’s experiences.

Ensuring the security of MyLifeBits is also a crucial concern, especially given the sensitive nature of the data to be archived. Because the system would be online, making it “hack proof” would be critical before MyLifeBits could become viable in the mass market.

Microsoft representatives were not immediately available for comment.

Work in Process

Jim Gemmell, one of the project’s other leaders, described some of the problems with creating this vast archive. “Indexing and retrieval of photographs and video clips can be a headache,” he said.

However, Gemmell added, “When it gets too frustrating to find something, you can always watch some of some classic movies you’ve captured from DVDs.”


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