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Tech boost for memory power

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Human memory is notoriously unreliable -- as the memoirs of countless politicians have proved.

For centuries people and societies have developed strategies to help them recall information, from knots in handkerchiefs, mnemonics and Post-It notes to repositories of collective memory such as museums and libraries.

But now technology may be on the verge of providing us with the ability to store and file details of our lives far beyond our natural capacity to remember.

Already many people carry camera phones enabling them to capture moments in video and pictures that previously would have been lost forever.

But that could only be the tip of the iceberg as the miniaturization of image sensor and digital recording technology and ever-expanding capacities for data storage make possible the development of personal "Black Box"-style recorders capable of chronicling entire lives.

One prototype that already goes some way towards that eventuality is Microsoft's SenseCam, picked out by Bill Gates in a recent Time magazine interview as one of the software giant's most exciting projects.

Designed at Microsoft's Cambridge research laboratory in the UK, SenseCam is a device which records still images by using ambient information such as changing light or sound levels, whether the user is in motion or whether anyone else is standing within two meters to enable it to work out when to take a photo.

"SenseCam was initially motivated by memory. It's inventor, Lyndsay Williams, wanted to build something to solve simple memory problems such as losing your keys," Ken Wood, Assistant Director at Microsoft's Cambridge laboratory, told CNN.

With advances in "pervasive computing" -- technology built into the environment around us -- future generations of SenseCam could be incorporated into our clothes or possessions, Wood said.

"As the materials advance and electronics continue to be microminiaturized we will be able to build these things into clothing or glasses," said Wood. "It will become less geeky."

Meanwhile another Microsoft team based in California is conducting a unique experiment to develop ways of sorting and ordering the huge quantities of raw data produced by SenseCam-style technology into a useable format.

For the past eight years researcher Gordon Bell has been digitally documenting every photograph, note, e-mail and document relevant to his life. More recently, he has started using a SenseCam to automatically record details of his daily movements. All that material is then uploaded to a searchable database called "MyLifeBits."

Bell says his ambition is to have "a complete record of my physical being in cyberspace" and even admits feeling a sense of emotional loss after misplacing an Outlook folder recently.

"On the one hand I felt pragmatic frustration that I needed a piece of information that I couldn't find, but there was a sense in which I thought, 'Wait a minute I've got my entire life in here and I've lost a piece of it.' There was a little bit of a hole there," Bell told CNN.

But he also believes he is merely pioneering a trend that will become increasingly common as the technology becomes more prevalent and easier to use.

"People already have enormous amounts of their lives online," Bell told CNN. "E-mail is there and now photos and video are coming in there. People's lives are starting to migrate online without them having to think about it, whether they like it or not."

In the short term however, the most likely beneficiaries from SenseCam could be those who have experienced cognitive memory loss.

In a hospital trial in which an amnesiac was given a SenseCam to record events and later asked to play back and review the images, the patient was able to remember almost every detail even weeks and months later. Describing the results as "dumbfounding," Wood said further trials were being planned with Alzheimer's sufferers.

Professor Martin Conway of Leeds University's Memory Group said that SenseCam could prove to be a potent tool in cueing memories that might otherwise be irretrievable.

"A lot of people think sufferers of amnesia have not lost the ability to encode information into long-term memory, but the ability to get it out of long-term memory," Conway told CNN.

"The big thing about SenseCam is that it produces images which are really rather like memory, particularly episodic memory, which is usually in the form of visual imagery. We think that because of those similarities SenseCam could be a particularly potent way to cue memory."

Beyond therapeutic uses, both Wood and Bell predicted that people would chose to record more and more of their lives as the technology became available -- and that privacy issues raised by that trend would need to be addressed, particularly as miniaturization made the technology more discrete and pervasive.

"Once a technology is out there it does tend to get used so I have a feeling it will probably end up being the case that people will end up capturing more and more things," said Wood. "If SenseCams or their equivalents turn out to be useful there will have to be social norms that emerge around them."

Meanwhile, Conway said SenseCam was merely a first step in harnessing technology and computing power to boost human memory power beyond its natural capacity.

"Devices like these are actually externalizing - and massively enhancing -- our mental ability," he said. "The next big step in the digital revolution in my view is exactly this enhancement of memory that will be able to stimulate neural networks so they'll work much more powerfully."

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