Microsoft enhances human memory with Total Recall

24 Sep 2009

For over the past decade Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell has been digitally archiving every minute detail of his life in digital format and together with his colleague Jim Gemmell set about developing MyLifeBits – software that facilitated this recording. This is the beginning of what they call the e-memory revolution.

Bell recorded not just emails, photos, documents, CDs and video footage but recordings of conversations, every webpage he visited, radio shows he had tuned into and web chats he had taken part in (

This is literally over a lifetime’s worth of memories, and the collection and organization of this and its importance to the evolution of human memory in a digital age is outlined in the researchers’ new book Total Recall.

This project, says Bell, is fulfilling the futuristic visions of US engineer and early computer scientist, who in 1945 described the memex (memory index): “a device in which an individual stores all his books (all scanned in!), records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.”

Beginning as an adventure in archiving for Bell in 1998, it turned into the Microsoft research projects MyLifeBits in 2003.

Bell says of this evolution: “Gordon discovered he had created this big mess for himself that he couldn’t do much with. I realized this had become a very interesting software problem.”

This, in essence, is a fully indexed and searchable electronic memory. If you were wondering where you were on a certain day in 2002, or what great website you looked at last week that had those quirky LOLcats pictures, or perhaps you has a business meeting and now cannot remember any of the names or faces the e-memory of the future will remember for you.

This is not the only use for MyLifeBits software; the real use lies in the ability to intelligently analyse data, a case in point being Bell’s health: with a heart condition, Bell tracks his weight, monitors his pacemaker data and builds up a picture over time of his physical condition.

These vast quantities of stored personal data do raise prvacy concerns, acknowledge the authors of Total Recall, and the Big Brother elements are discussed but as bell says, he sees himself as a life-logger as opposed to a life-blogger, in other words he does not share his data publicly but rather keeps it for his on personal use, an extension of his biological memory and private thoughts.

“What we’re doing is not really aimed at putting your whole life on Facebook or MySpace or wherever. This is a memory aid and a record aid, something you utilize at a personal level,” explains Bell.

Why spend you life recording memories instead of living them? “In the end, you have immortality. You have a record of where a life has been,” says Bell.

By Marie Boran, via

Photo: Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell’s book Total Recall is about the importance of the evolution of human memory in a digital age.