Are human beings meant to have a perfect memory?

In 1945, researcher Vannevar Bush proposed the memex (short for memory extension), a machine that would help people hold, organize, and make sense of the increasing abundance of knowledge they are forced to deal with daily. Today, researchers at UNC are testing a modern prototype of this machine.

The prototype, developed by Microsoft Research, uses software called “MyLifeBits” to collect, organize, and store information on your computer. It records everything that happens on your PC, from the files you open to the web sites you visit. You can also use the program to house external data such as bills, or even images from a SenseCam — a two-inch-square, plastic pendant with a set of sensors and a fish-eye lens you can wear around your neck. The SenseCam snaps an image every ninety seconds, or when it detects a change in light levels or acceleration. It also records the temperature and time-stamps the photo. MyLifeBits displays all of this information for you in a colorful line graph, and also allows you to search through data and images.

UNC is one of fourteen universities that received technology awards from Microsoft Research to explore memex technology, but, John Oberlin says, “We are the only people we know of trying to combine the areas of memex and context-aware technologies.”

A context-aware framework is a software environment that takes in sensory information from a combination of devices such as WiFi, GPS, and environmental or biometric sensors, and uses this information to make logical deductions about a person’s context. For example, it might look at your location and the people around you and determine that you are in a meeting. Or let’s say you are in an unfamiliar town and you want to find a pizzeria — your memex could read where you are and tell you how to get to the nearest pizza place.

“When fully realized, a personal academic memex would allow a student to easily find transcripts of all study group meetings with friends,” Oberlin says. “Or to retrieve all lecture notes where the professor talked about a particular topic, say, ‘radiocarbon dating.’”

At UNC, Oberlin and Jane Greenberg, along with other members of their research team, have been testing the SenseCam and the memex with biology students who are learning plant identification in the university’s arboretum. The goal is to use this new technology to assist students in learning about scientific taxonomy and the natural world, Greenberg says.

“Students learn better when they are actively engaged in the learning process and have time to reflect on their experience,” she says. “The memex records student experiences and memories and provides a rich opportunity for this type of productive learning experience.”

Oberlin says a memex with limited capabilities may become available for students within the next five to ten years. It could store lectures, notes, papers, records of group meetings — all the information pertinent to any student’s academic life. It would use the context-aware framework to know when to record, and enable the user to conduct searches of the data later on. Oberlin says the memex would function primarily as a memory augmentation device, a concept he says has long-term application.

Dan Reed wore the SenseCam for almost a month and got to record what a typical “day in the life of Dan” is like. Although unexcited by his record of personal activities — which, he jokes, consisted primarily of drinking coffee, going to meetings, and checking e-mails — he sees potential in the memex. “How do we, in some sense, amplify intelligence?” Reed asks. “What matters is not just what you know, but knowing how to find out what is known.”

But there are still some hurdles to overcome — the amount of space memex data occupies on a PC; the obtrusive appearance of the SenseCam; the tricky issue of privacy laws. At the very least, Reed says, we’d have to decide what is and is not okay to record, and how memex data could be used. And the questions don’t end there. What would you want to remember?

Laura Granfortuna was formerly a student contributor to Endeavors.

UNC’s Department of Biology, School of Information and Library Science (SILS), and Information Technology Services (ITS) are collaboratively testing the Memex Metadata (M2) for Student Portfolios project. Principal investigator Jane Greenberg is an associate professor in SILS and Director of the SILS Metadata Research Center. Co-principal investigators are John Oberlin, associate vice chancellor for information technology, planning, and technology assessment with ITS; Peter White, director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden and a professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Debbie Barreau, an assistant professor in SILS. Dan Reed is vice chancellor for information technology and director of ITS.