Are most people using the cloud in some way today?
Sure. Consider iTunes, Dropbox, Salesforce.com and HealthVault—[the latter of] which lets you store and share your medical information, as opposed to, say, the Epic software used by your local hospital. Start-up companies offering online games, project management tools and other services are other ways people are using the cloud.
How are cloud services impacting science?
For science, cloud services haven't really started to any measurable degree. However, for science the cloud is inevitable, driven by several factors. Universities and other research organizations maintaining their own high-performance compute clusters will start to see the cost benefit of having someone else manage these systems. The life of data in a high-performance cluster is suspect and probably only as long-lived as the student is running the experiment. And there may or may not be any redundancy or backup for the data they produce.
Cloud computing offers scientists access to data across a number of research organizations. As science grows beyond a single lab, the administrative details and network costs to support a scientific community requires standards and overhead that are beyond a single lab or university computation center's mentality. Homegrown, grad student–managed computer systems positioned as a type of mini cloud providing 24-by-seven access to data will give way to commercial cloud services that have geographic redundancy and higher reliability. Scientists are also facing pressure to make data available forever, particularly when their experiments are publicly funded. Even more relevant, larger scale experiments driven by the competitive research market and fed data by ubiquitous sensors are producing terabytes of information that are too expensive to manage on in-lab servers. Then there's the skill required to maintain these systems. Is the goal to train computer operators or have the graduate students work on science?
What is "life logging" and how does Microsoft's MyLifeBits relate to this?
MyLifeBits, which I wrote about with Jim Gemmell in the March 2007 issue of Scientific American, is a Microsoft Research project to provide people with the tools needed to compile a lifelong digital archive, or life-logging. It is the fulfillment of Vannevar Bush's 1945 memex [hypertext] vision—a digital repository of information accumulated throughout one's life to supplement one's own memory—including full-text search, text and audio annotations, and hyperlinks.
Since 2001 Jim Gemmell and I have demonstrated many aspects of complete life-logging—storing letters, papers, photos, videos and voice recordings associated with my life in an annotated and searchable database. The advent of digital cameras, biosensors and GPS means we can now log everything about an individual in real time, from location to aspects of their physical state such as energy expenditure, heart rate and stress levels.
Utopian vision or dystopian nightmare? The extent of future life-logging will depend not least on the laws and norms we establish on privacy. For example, what right do we have to record our interactions with others? But life-logging's potential to benefit individuals' lives and society generally is immense. In 2009 researchers in the U.K. showed how life-logging with a time-lapse camera can aid those suffering from memory loss to regain control of their lives. For social scientists extensive life-logging will mean an unprecedented flood of data to further our understanding of human behavior. And for each of us it could mean a chance for a little, limited immortality.