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Recording Your Life

Accenture's personal-awareness assistant could one day let you effortlessly record key conversations or tie into back-end systems.
Imagine a wearable device that never lets you forget a name, remotely ties into back-end systems, or makes you seem like a human encyclopedia during business meetings. Researchers at Accenture Technology Labs are refining a prototype of such a device. The personal-awareness assistant, or PAA, constantly records user interactions to create what's essentially a searchable database of memories and other important information.

For instance, the device could whisper in your ear to remind you of the name of a business acquaintance you met two weeks ago. It could respond to a simple voice command and tell you whether the part your customer needs is in stock, or it could turn a colleague's instant message into an audible answer to an important question during a client meeting. It will even use global positioning system technology to detect that you're driving past a grocery story and tell you that you may want to stop and pick up a chocolate cake for that holiday party. The prototype, as it stands, is powered by a 400-MHz Pentium chip, 1-Gbyte hard drive, and 256 Mbytes of RAM and uses off-the shelf applications. Accenture research associates Owen Richter and Dana Le say their work centers on how to incorporate the collection of available technology into a business setting and possibly land an integration job with one of the consulting firms' huge clients, or even spin the technology off into its own business.

The PAA--the prototype of which is about the size of a fanny pack but will reconfigured as a combination cell phone and PDA in the next three to five months, Richter says--works intuitively based on predefined commands. It will automatically record all conversations--and even take low-resolution photos--and keep them available for a limited time pending a verbal cue. It could be programmed to detect the phrase "nice to meet you," which would trigger the device to automatically save the previous, say, 30 seconds of dialog, creating a searchable record of a person's name pronunciation and other pertinent data. Richter says the idea for the PAA grew from the realization that hard drives were capable of storing basically all of a person's life. "We began to think, if you could record your whole life, what would you be likely to record?"

Naturally, the implications are disturbing to privacy advocates. Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says some states have laws prohibiting the recording of a conversation without notifying the person being recorded. Accenture has addressed this by having a red indicator light visible on the microphone of the device as it's recording, but whether that qualifies as notification may ultimately be a matter for the courts to decide, Hoofnagle says. Whatever the case, he doubts that citizens will embrace the idea of being constantly recorded by each other: "There could be a strong backlash against this type of monitoring."

Richter says part of the development project is to identify appropriate uses of the technology and determine whether the practical benefits outweigh the privacy concerns. Eventually, he expects an etiquette to develop around wearable technologies such as the PAA, much as they have around the cell phone. But he also acknowledges that users of the device will have a certain responsibility to those they record. "You'll have to be very explicit about how you use it," Richter says. He says real-world applications of the PAA are still three to five years away.