"In the not too distant future a device the size of a sugar cube will exist able to record an entire life time of human memories." So says Professor Nigel Shadbolt, President of the British Computer Society, at the Memories for Life colloquium held today at the British Library.

The event brought together a diverse range of academics in a bid to understand how memory works and to develop the technologies to enhance it. It has been recognised as a Grand Challenge for computing, by the UK Computing Research Committee. Such challenges are international in scope and promise revolutionary advances.

The Memories for Life (M4L) concept, funded by the British Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), states on its website: "It is now possible to store digital versions of life’s memories. It takes 100Kbit/s to get high quality audio and video. If we imagine someone with a camera strapped to his or her head for 70 years (2.2 × 109 seconds), that is something of the order of 27.5 terabytes of storage required, or about 450 60GB iPods. And if Moore’s Law continues to hold over those 70 years (admittedly a large assumption), it would be possible to store a continuous record of a life on a grain of sand."

Shadbolt's ideas are presented more fully in an issue of the Journal of The Royal Society Interface. In it, he and his fellow authors write: "Analysing stored information to model a person’s lifestyle (with potential commercial implications in the insurance and security industries), behaviour and health (the ‘virtual general practitioner’), or intelligent Web pages that can adapt themselves to a person’s linguistic and other competence: as examples of the kind of applications a sugar cube memory might make possible.

However, accumulating and storing a lifetime of memories will take place over a time span much longer than that since digital storage first began. Within the lifetime of digital storage so far there have many different representations of stored data, most of which can no longer be read, such as punch cards and early tape formats. Developing a very long lived stored data medium will be crucial.

The paper's authors write: "One possible development to achieve this may be an increasing move towards information being held in online managed services, with personal devices acting solely as access points." But this is no real solution; it merely shifts the problem onto the managed service providers who somehow have to migrate masses of data onto new storage devices as they arrive.

Another problem concerns information management: "As computers become increasingly able to store a lifetime’s worth of memories, in various forms - digital photographs, emails, documents, accounts, blogs, video diaries - the question of managing such stores is becoming serious." Another problem they have identified is multi-media searching.

The grand challenge is to embed artificial memory stores into real life, and by understanding the operation of human memory, to augment it with technological support from artificial memory storage.

Merely storing the data, even if there is 27.7TB in a sugar-cube-sized box, is not that great a problem compared to searching and retrieving data the from multi-media stores within it and integrating those with human memories and life.