A Lecture on Computer Memory at UCSD
Going to university lectures is fun. You learn spanking new stuff from the top people in a field and they give out free coffee and cookies to boot. On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Tom Coughlin titled Storing Your Life: Consumer Digital Storage - Personal, Hierarchical and Virtual. Sounds like a hoot doesn't it, well it was.
The best part of the digital storage lecture for my money (and these lectures are free) was learning how much digital memory is out there in the world, how digital memory is being used and what the future might hold... actually from the lecture we really don't know what the future holds, except we are quite sure we are underestimating it. So here's the run down of the best new knowledge.
According to Tom right now the worlds consumer electronics (cell phones, dvds, etc.) market accounts for about about 5 exabytes of data or about five billion gigabytes. According to Wikipedia in 2006 their were about 180 exabytes of digital storage in existence (meaning consumer electronics only accounts for <2% of that data). Further if you wanted to run down to the store and buy an exobyte of memory in hard-disk space it would run you in the order of 200 million dollars (2008). You might want to wait to purchase, however, world memory use is increasing at a compounding rate of 60% per year, and the price of digital memory is growing much slower than that. It won't be more than a few years before the exabyte of data will look like chump change to the zettabytes of data floating around. Tom also made what I think is a prescient prediction about the future of digital data recording. He supposes that there may come a time soon where the meta-data associated with recording an event actually represents more information than the event itself. I really think that has to be true, moreover, I would elaborate to propose that meta data defines one of the fundamental ways that digital memory storage differs from biological memory. I would suppose that biological memory storage is all about meta-data, so that we might not be well suited to memorizing long numbers, but we can sure as hell tell you what a waste of time it would be to try and remember them (thats meta data analysis, the computer would think that number was just as important as anything else that ever happens).
**(curmudgeons be advised, a chance to get mad is coming)**
To digress from the topic of metadata, Tom, also proposes that consumer digital memory use might increase even faster than the current 60% annual appreciation. He thinks the demand for this change will be driven by the adoption of lifelogging as a cultural norm. For those not in the know a Lifelog is a constant recording (usually audio/visual) of the everyday events of ones life. Lifelogs usually take that information and download it to your computer or uploads it to the internet to make it searchable, so your whole becomes one big Truman Show. One could imagine how useful it might be to be able to search through your own Lifelog history, when memory fails. A Lifelog could act as a record of oral statements in business negotiations or offer a tight legal defense for those falsely accused of wrongdoing. Of course, lifelogs would also completely shatter any illusions we have that we might just be able to hide our hand in the sand from big brother. As unsettling as Lifeloging might be to those who are privacy fanatics, as Tom pointed out there is really no avoiding the tsunami of technology and Lifelogs will be part of the future like it or not.
In fact Lifelogs are already part of the present. Outside of Nixon's paranoid needs to record everything, Tom pointed to a certain Van Hoover Bush who began keeping an audio life log in the 40's. This man acted as the inspiration for Gordon Bell, a modern computer guru now acting as a consultant for Microsoft, who keeps his own Lifelog 'my life bits'. Wikipedia added a few more names to my list of life loggers, 20,000 actually, who are organized under a lifelogging service, Glogger, founded by another computer guru, Steve Mann, who spends his free time playing an instrument called the hydraulophone, a type of water flute which replaces the typical air in a flute with H2O to make beautiful enchanting music. Cool stuff.
Tom went on to mention a company, VIEVU, that is producing commercial Lifelogging devices. A quick search on the Vievu website produced an elegant lifelogging device that may be purchased for $500 which can constantly record for up to 4 hours and then be downloaded to computer. When you think about it, the chances are good that you are already a blip on someone's lifelog. And I'm telling you its the calm before a storm, my friend.
Of course Tom was primarily interested in the effects of Lifelogs and Metadata on consumer memory needs in the future and it made me think of the Photosynth demo I've seen. If you haven't seen Photosynth you must. Basically, the Photosynth software is capable of rendering a 3-D object from a series of random photos of different size and qualities . In the demo I've posted, photosynth software reconstructs a 3-D rendering Notre Dam cathedral from pictures nabbed from Flickr. Anyhow, my photosynth musings made me think that in addition to all of this Lifelogging Tom is hyped about, we could very well see tools like Photosynth knit together the pieces of different people's lives, producing a virtual tapestry representing the history of our human experience. Just imagine the demands lifelog stitching will put on digital memory systems! I guess that is why its obvious to everyone in the know, including Tom, that we really don't have any idea how much memory we will need in the future, just that we are almost sure to be underestimating.