Alon Halevy - Your Personal Data Timeline Data timelines will protect your privacy and make AI better.

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Alon Halevy next to a big computer screen

The important question of how companies and organizations use our data has received a lot of attention in the technology and policy communities. An equally important question that deserves more focus in 2023 is how we, as individuals, can take advantage of the data we generate to improve our health, vitality, and productivity.  

We create a variety of data throughout our days. Photos capture our experiences, phones record our workouts and locations, Internet services log the content we consume and our purchases. We also record our want-to lists: desired travel and dining destinations, books and movies we plan to enjoy, and social activities we want to pursue. Soon smart glasses will record our experiences in even more detail. However, this data is siloed in dozens of applications. Consequently, we often struggle to retrieve important facts from our past and build upon them to create satisfying experiences on a daily basis.

But what if all this information were fused in a personal timeline designed to help us stay on track toward our goals, hopes, and dreams? The idea is not new. Vannevar Bush envisioned it in 1945, calling it a memex. In the 90’s, Gordon Bell and his colleagues at Microsoft Research built MyLifeBits, a prototype of this vision. The prospects and pitfalls of such a system have been depicted in film and literature.

Privacy is obviously a key concern in terms of keeping all our data in a single repository and protecting it against intrusion or government overreach. Privacy means that your data is available only to you, but if you want to share parts of it, you should be able to do it on the fly by uttering a command such as, “Share my favorite cafes in Tokyo with Jane.” No single company has all our data or the trust to store all our data. Therefore, building technology that enables personal timelines should be a community effort that includes protocols for the exchange of data, encrypted storage, and secure processing.

Building personal timelines will also force the AI community to pay attention to two technical challenges that have broader application.

The first challenge is answering questions over personal timelines. We’ve made significant progress on question answering over text and multimodal data. However, in many cases, question answering requires that we reason explicitly about sets of answers and aggregates computed over them. This is the bread and butter of database systems. For example, answering “what cafes did I visit in Tokyo?” or “how many times did I run a half marathon in under two hours?” requires that we retrieve sets as intermediate answers, which is not currently done in natural language processing.  Borrowing more inspiration from databases, we also need to be able to explain the provenance of our answers and decide when they are complete and correct.

The second challenge is to develop techniques that use our timelines, responsibly, for improved personal well-being. Taking inspiration from the field of positive psychology, we can all flourish by creating positive experiences for ourselves and adopting better habits. An AI agent that has access to our previous experiences and goals can give us timely reminders and suggestions of things to do or avoid.

Ultimately, what we choose to do is up to us, but I believe that an AI with a holistic view of our day-to-day activities, better memory, and superior planning capabilities would benefit everyone.

Alon Halevy is a director at the Reality Labs Research branch of Meta. His hopes for 2023 represent his personal opinion and not that of Meta.

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