TCS Daily

Unforgettable, That's What You Are...

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 21, 2004 12:00 AM

One of the big geek-news stories of last week was the release of LaCie's new 1 Terabyte external firewire hard drive. And it's easy to see why - a terabyte of storage in a package smaller than a cigar box, for about a thousand dollars is a pretty big deal. (Here's what a terabit -- less than a terabyte -- of storage looked like three decades ago. You can read about it here.) According to some reports, ten of these would be enough to store a lifetime's worth of sensory data, something that some people are already looking to collect:

[Chris] Winter's device, dubbed the Soul Catcher, would employ nanobots to crawl into your cranium, latch onto your sensory nerves, and begin recording experiential data. The brain receives around 100 Mbytes of sensory information for each second of experience - 90 percent of which comes from the eyes alone. Once the nanorecorders upload their data, your life could be stored on a 10-terabyte memory chip, which, Winter believes, should exist in a couple of decades. Theoretically, these experiences could then be transmitted to playback nanobots in another person's brain, allowing them to literally "relive the moment." Winter calls it "immortality in the truest sense," adding that "the optic nerve can be treated just like a digital information system."

I'm not sure it's really immortality in the truest sense -- that would seem to me to involve generating new experiences that I could enjoy, not simply replaying old ones for the benefit of someone else. As Woody Allen once said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying." Winter is a researcher with British Telecom who is also a solid-state physicist with a background in biochemistry. His approach would seem to be more the former than the latter.

Still the notion of being able to store a lifetime's worth of experiences in off-the-shelf hardware that can be bought for less than a small car is pretty striking. (Twenty such one-terabyte disks, by way of comparison, would hold the entire Library of Congress, though you'd need 100 of them to hold all the pages on the Web.) And the rapid growth of higher-capacity memory devices raises all sorts of interesting issues regardless of whether devices like Winter's ever actually work.

And the growth certainly is rapid. You can buy flash memory chips that have more capacity than all but my last two or three hard drives. (I still own an Ambra 486 computer with a 240MB hard drive that seemed huge when I bought it -- now I have more memory in my digital cameras). Projecting current trends forward a few years, the 10-terabyte chip that Winter foresees isn't too terribly far away. Which raises the question of how we will ever find anything.

Every time I buy a new computer, I just copy my old files over. I should go through and delete the unnecessary ones, but I don't. The reason is that it's too much time and trouble, and the new hard drive -- being, inevitably, much larger than the old hard drive -- has plenty of room. The result now is that I have over 100,000 files. Most of the time it doesn't matter (there's still room) and I can still find the old stuff fairly well, as I have pretty well-established conventions for naming files to make them easy to remember and find. (This one will be "techcentralmemory012104," a name that groups it with the other TCS columns, offers an easy prompt to my biological memory as to what it's about, and includes the date). I set up my directories in the same fashion. But sometimes something falls through the cracks, and then it's damned difficult to locate. (As quite a few people have noticed before, it's often easier to find things on the Web than on your own hard drive.)

But ultimately, what I'm doing is the equivalent of buying a new house every few years, just to have enough room to store my junk, instead of throwing things away. And, at the same time, everyone else is buying bigger houses, too. Figuring out how to index and find all of this stuff simply underscores the wisdom of Robert Heinlein's statement: "library science is the foundation of all sciences, just as math is the key -- and we will survive or founder, depending on how well the librarians do their jobs."

Well, now it's not so much the librarians as the search-engine coders, I guess, but the point's still there. And searching this extra storage space will be different, I think: We may not be recording human sensory input directly for a while, but I recently bought a 160GB hard drive just for video, and I suspect that a lot of this extra capacity will be used to store things -- like sound and images -- that aren't as easily indexed as text. As more and more of the Web's content is made up of these kinds of files, will it grow steadily harder to find what you're looking for?

Search engine designers are hard at work on this, but so far they don't seem to be keeping up with the growth in storage space and the shift in media. I hope they make it, but it's going to take a whole new approach. I'd like to be able to query an array of terabyte disks by looking for something like "the soccer video where Fred trips over the ball" and have it turn up the proper clip based on analysis of the video itself, not just a separate index entry prepared by a human being. We'll need stuff like that, as the data pool turns into a data ocean. And that's a transformation that's happening awfully fast.


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