Microsoft Research have cooked up a rather interesting little idea. The news (over here in the MIT Technology Review) is that they have created a prototype browser that uses artificial intelligence to mine and explore your own personal data. It will sift through your photos, emails, web browsing history, search history, calendar events, and any other documents you have on your PC, pulling out the key events and landmarks in your life. The article explains …

“The motivation behind Lifebrowser is that we have too much stuff going on in our personal digital spheres,” says Eric Horvitz, the distinguished scientist at Microsoft who created Lifebrowser. “We were interested in making local machines private data-mining centers [that are] very smart about you and your memory so that you can better navigate through that great amount of content.”

Lifebrowser’s interactive timeline looks like a less polished version of Facebook’s recently introduced Timeline feature. However, Horvitz’s design predates Facebook’s and doesn’t rely on a user to manually curate it. Photos, e-mails, and other documents and data points appear in chronological order, but Lifebrowser’s timeline only shows those judged to be associated with “landmark” events by artificial intelligence algorithms. A user can slide a “volume control” to change how significant data has to be if it is to appear on the timeline. A search feature can pull up landmark events on a certain topic.

Sadly we don’t get to have a go, he has given it to a few friends to have a play and they report that they get good results, but it is just research. Perhaps one day we will get to tinker with it.

If curious to have a look (as I was), then here is a demo from You Tube

Now I see a few very practical barriers

  • Who really keeps stuff going back 20 years on the same PC? Technology rapidly changes and so we switch devices over time from PCs to laptops, to iPads and so leave stuff behine. No one device is the definitive truth for any human life.
  • OK, I confess, I do keep some old stuff, I tend to dump it to a DVD and then perhaps let it collect dust … so it just might be possible to pull together. And yet I bet most don’t and simply lose all that history (I may be wrong).
  • Would everybody really want to have a complete history like this. Some might indeed prefer to rewrite their personal history.
  • Lives are also very segmented … we have a PC at home and then we also have a PC at work. For many a firewall (corporate ones) exist between both, so have there is no hope of being able to knit such separate silos together
  • And of course the obvious …. “Ah but this is just Facebook timeline”. Except it is not, and will potentially dig a lot deeper

I do also see some very interesting things that might emerge.

  • Think of the potential for biographers (assuming there was a will to expose such raw information)
  • Think how we might also potentially knit a very comprehensive and rich family history … the stuff that really mattered to us for those that are yet to come to look back on. It would be far beyond the traditional family tree that is a collection of anonymous names and dates. Our descendants would get to know us and truly understand who we were. (Hey descendants yet to be, if you are reading this, then this is a quick “Hi” from me down here in the distant past)

Will anything come of this? I hope so, we are all amassing heaps of personal data, much of which will never be loaded into Facebook so will not be part of timeline. It would indeed be of value to have the means to mine it and finger the stuff we care about. And yes, I know … Microsoft … sigh! … everybody’s favourite whipping post, but what the heck, a good idea remains a good idea regardless of the source, and this qualifies as one, I just hope it manages to escape the lab without being mangled too badly by a marketing machine that appears to be occasionally rather good at taking some interesting ideas and bending them into something we learn to frown upon.

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