Building a Personal Timeline Like Facebook's, in the Privacy of Your Own Computer

By Veronique Greenwood | March 20, 2012 10:47 am

Chances are, your hard drive is packed with important relics—the first email you sent your spouse, the photographs of your grandma’s 80th birthday, the documents you read for your senior thesis. The data you’ve accrued plays the same role as albums full of pictures, letters, and sentimental objects might have for earlier generations: it constructs a narrative about your progress through life. Or at least it could, if there were a way to have it automatically organized.

This personal data-mining is what what Facebook’s Timeline feature aims to do, but the Timeline is curated manually by the user, includes only files you’ve uploaded to Facebook, and is public, for all your Facebook friends to see (and maybe there are some events in your life you’d like to remember without the whole world peering over your shoulder). So we were interested to read about Lifebrowser, a product being developed in Microsoft Research that automatically arranges your hard drive’s files into a timeline, using machine learning to discern which of them represent landmark events.

We like this idea, but here’s one thing we don’t get: People burn through hard drives and computers like nobody’s business, and once you transfer your backed-up files to a new machine, the timestamps usually reset (at least, we haven’t taken any care to preserve them; maybe some tech-savvy folks do). Will your scanned kindergarten pictures register as being from the same era as your college term papers and every email from 2010? Or does Lifebrowser’s machine learning somehow pick up on the fact that five-year-olds don’t write about Proust?


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