Is MyLifeBits The Future Of Personalized Search?

By Aaron Goldman, VP Marketing & Strategic Partnerships
Appeared in MediaPosts’s Search Insider

Ever since I got into the search marketing business, I've been telling anyone who'd listen that search is so much more than keyword listings. And, no, I'm not referring to alternative formats like images and video or platforms like mobile and RSS.

Search is fundamentally changing the way we live and the world around us. Never have I felt this with more conviction than after reading Peter Morville's "Ambient Findability." I've already spilled enough ink gushing over this book and its implications for search marketing so I'll spare you that today. Instead I want to discuss a project that I was tipped off to on page 94 of Morville's magnum opus.

In his chapter on "intertwingularity," Morville highlights MyLifeBits, a research project being conducted by Microsoft.

The Goal

According to this demo, the aim of MyLifeBits is to be a "lifetime store of everything — at least everything we can possibly digitize."

In a nutshell, MyLifeBits is the answer to the question I posed in my second Search Insider column, "Why Can't Everything Be Searchable?" According to Gordon Bell, the mastermind behind MyLifeBits, it can — and it will. But, first, it must be digitized.

As noted in this Sciam submission, Bell and his research partner, Jim Gemmel, are working off the premise that "human memory can be maddeningly elusive" and attempting to create tools to "digitally chronicle every aspect of a person's life."

Per this feature in The New Yorker, Bell drew inspiration for this project from Vannevar Bushmemex for memory extender. who, in 1945, envisioned a "future device for individual use, which is sort of a mechanized private file and library." He coined the term

The ultimate goal of MyLifeBits, once a massive index has been compiled, is "complementary computing, where the computer understands human limitations and fills in the gaps" — in other words, "a machine that can act like a personal assistant, anticipating its user's needs."

The Path

In Morville's words, the MyLifeBits team is "exploring the mix of hardware, software, and metadata tags necessary to store and retrieve everything we see, hear, and read."

Over the past six years, Bell has captured his every communication (email, instant messages, even phone calls) as well as images he sees (via "SenseCam" — a camera worn around his neck that snaps pics when it detects a warm body nearby), Web sites he visits, documents he creates, media he has consumed, etc.

Bell also scanned old books, letters, photos, even logos from t-shirts, in his effort to become completely paperless — his index is at 300,000 items (150 gigs) and growing. And I thought I was a pack rat!

The Means

Bell and Gemmell point to 3 trends that are making the development of a memex achievable:

  1. The growth and affordability of digital storage capacity — "Today a $600 hard drive can hold a terabyte (one trillion bytes) of data."
  2. Advancements in sensory devices and technology – "Microphones and cameras are now cheap enough to be installed virtually anywhere."
  3. Increases in computing power – "The past decade has led to the introduction of processors that can efficiently retrieve, analyze, and visualize vast amounts of information."

The Utility

The point of creating such a thorough personal index is, of course, the ability to navigate it, learn from it, and share it. By making all life moments searchable — and therefore (re)discoverable — we can truly act on the old adage "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it."

But there are other, tangential outcomes of a successful memex that are worth noting.

Bell and Gemmell identify 3 potential scenarios that seem to make MyLifeBits an almost-altruistic endeavor:

  1. "Sensors can also log the three billion or so heartbeats in a person's lifetime, along with other psychological indicators, and warn of a possible heart attack."
  2. "Computers can analyze digital memories to help with time management, pointing our when you are not spending enough time on your highest priorities."
  3. "Perhaps most important, digital memories can enable all people to tell their life stories to their descendants in a compelling, detailed fashion."

And let's not overlook the positive environmental impact of a paperless world.

As Bell and Gemmell put it, "the opportunities are restricted only by our ability to imagine them."

The Challenges

Just as with ambient findability, there are barriers to achieving memex perfection as well as challenges to living in a world where platforms like MyLifeBits are pervasive.

Among the barriers are matters like uniform formatting, (in)accuracy of speech-to-text conversion, and the plain old time hog of going back and digitizing all of one's belongings.

And privacy is one key area we need to consider when "with a single errant keystroke, one's medical records might inadvertently be distributed to the entire world."

Space is running short here, though, so I'll explore these issues further in my next column. I'll also focus on…

The Marketing Implications

From the storage of "traditional" advertising messages for later recall to the dynamic targeting of ads based on rich, personal data, the marketing implications of MyLifeBits are strong and varied.

If you think Amazon or Netflix recommendations are on point, imagine a product-recommendation engine that could pivot on what your friends are wearing (as captured in pictures) or what your friends said about what you were wearing (as captured in phone conversations) or what you thought about what you were wearing (as determined by how often you actually wore those designer jeans).

The Search Implications

There are also some important considerations in searching a memex. The MyLifeBits demo showcases FacetMap, a clustering tool that underscores how much more meaningful visual search is when it comes to known entities such as your personal archive.

I'll pick it up here in my next column — after all, what better way to explore this topic than in bits and pieces?


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