BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE

Soon, technology may have the power to track every waking moment of your life--and preserve it in a form that will allow your great-great-great grandchildren to quiz a virtual you


Einstein's brain? Not exactly, but software allows Carnegie Mellon University professor Raj Reddy to "converse" with a simulated version of the great scientist.
So you'd like to live forever? By the year 2050, you might actually get your wish--providing you are willing to evacuate your biological body and take up residence in silicon circuits. But long before then, perhaps as early as 2005, less radical measures will begin offering a semblance of immortality.

Researchers are confident that technology will soon be able to track every waking moment of your life. Whatever you see and hear, plus all that you say and write, can be recorded, analyzed and automatically indexed, and added to your personal chronicles. By the 2030s, it may be possible to capture your nervous system's electrical activity, which would also preserve your thoughts and emotions. Researchers at the BT Laboratories of British Telecommunications PLC have dubbed this concept the Soul Catcher.

In a preview of what the near term holds, Carnegie Mellon University two years ago unveiled a system called Synthetic Interviews, with Albert Einstein as its first subject. To learn about the theory of relativity or the physicist's private life, you engage in what almost seems to be a live videoconference with an ersatz Einstein. The system quickly parses each question and selects the best-match response from a bank of 500 video recordings. So it's easy to forget what's going on under the hood--speech recognition to digitize your words, natural-language processing to understand the question, and a rating scheme similar to that used by Lycos Inc. to rank the results of Web searches.

The hardware for early versions of virtual immortality exists now. You could document your daily life using tiny video cameras embedded in eyeglass frames. They could be linked to IBM's latest hard disk--it's the size of a quarter and could be housed in a pendant. It stores 300 megabytes of data, enough to hold 30 days of your life. But by 2005, says David A. Thompson, a fellow at IBM Almaden Research Center, a full year should easily fit on such Lilliputian disks.

MAINFRAMED MEMORIES. Software, though, is another matter. Techniques for analyzing and indexing streams of images are pretty primitive. If your personal history of 2005 were like one gigantic videocassette tape, searching for a specific incident could take hours. So several laboratories are working on ways to catalog video content automatically. IBM Almaden's CueVideo team, led by Dragutin Petkovic, head of visual media management, is using artificial intelligence tools to sift video recordings for important scene shifts. The resulting index is an interactive storyboard with key frames from your life.

Eventually, these efforts will coalesce into ''organized, online archives of everything that happens,'' predicts D. Raj Reddy, a professor of computer science at CMU. Then all kinds of fanciful possibilities will become practical. For instance, someone can talk to ''you'' from the distant future via the Web. In 2099, your great-great-great grandchildren will be able to quiz a reconstituted you about what it was like to work with computers so big and clunky they had to be held on your lap. And what ''you'' reply won't be restricted to canned statements, as with Synthetic Interviews. Smart mind-mime software will extrapolate from the hard data to infer how the real you would have responded.

The same online infrastructure will transform the earth into a huge Starship Enterprise with virtual teleportation at your beck and call. But instead of ''Beam me up, Scotty,'' Reddy predicts, ''you'll say, 'Beam me there,''' and bam! you--or at least a holographic image of you--will be at a meeting of the elders of a New Guinea tribe. The network would provide instantaneous translation so you can understand the local lingo.

Far-fetched? ''We have the technology to do most of this now,'' says Reddy. The real obstacle, he says, is lack of bandwidth.

There's also the issue of capital: These systems will be expensive at first. But the money will come quickly once the bandwidth is available. Competition will see to that. When engineering teams can collaborate through so-called telepresence, managers can call instant meetings in virtual reality, and everyone in the organization has infallible memories and shared access to the group's knowledge, ''you've got a huge competitive advantage,'' says Reddy. Internet time will be pokey by comparison. ''Today's yearlong projects will get done in a month, maybe a week,'' he predicts. So the companies that get there first ''will clean everyone else's plates.''

SMALL WONDERS. This will pave the way for BT Labs' Soul Catcher. It would use a wearable supercomputer, perhaps in a wristwatch, with wireless links to microsensors under your scalp and in the nerves that carry all five sensory signals. So wearing a video camera would no longer be required.

At first, the Soul Catcher's companion system--the Soul Emancipator?--might have trouble replicating you in complete detail. Even in 2030, we may still be struggling to understand the brain's internal workings, so reading your thoughts and interpreting your emotions might not be possible. But these signals could be conserved for the day when they can be transferred to silicon circuits to rejuvenate minds as immortal entities. Researchers can only wonder what it will be like to wake up one day and find yourself alive inside a machine.

For people who chose not to inhabit silicon, virtual immortality could still ease the sense of futility that now haunts many people. Individuals would know their lives would not be forgotten, but would be preserved as a thread in a multimedia quilt that keeps a permanent record of the human race. And future generations would have a much fuller understanding of the past. History would not be dominated by just the rich and powerful, the Hollywood icons, and a few elite thinkers.

By OTIS PORT

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BT Labs Homepage

CMU's Synthetic Interviews technology

The Next few Steps (download)

When I'm 64 (download)

BT Labs' Views of the Future

Wired Magazine: Peter Cochrane Will Microprocess Your Soul?



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