STEM skills that can open up new worlds

STEM can open up a huge range of exciting and innovative opportunities. One such example is ‘lifelogger’ Dr Cathal Gurrin

Smile, you’re on camera: Cathal Gurrin wears a bodycam similar to this one. PHOTOGRAPH: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/GETTY

Smile, you’re on camera: Cathal Gurrin wears a bodycam similar to this one. PHOTOGRAPH: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/GETTY

 

Just where can a career in Stem take you? For Dr Cathal Gurrin it means wearing a camera around his neck all day. About five times a minute it automatically photographs his life – his every encounter, holiday, book or film, meal or pint – and sends the results to a locked database.

Why would this researcher bother? For almost a decade, Gurrin, a Dublin City University lecturer and computer scientist with the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, has been the world’s ultimate diary keeper. Gurrin is a “lifelogger” with the ambitious aim of building a search engine that people can use to look over their entire lives.

In 2006 Microsoft sent wearable cameras to five universities in the United States. One set was also given to DCU. “Nobody wanted to wear them,” Gurrin says. “We wanted to build a search engine, and a search engine needs data, so I volunteered; I was going to Norway for two weeks, and I figured nobody knew me there. It was only supposed to be for two weeks. I really enjoyed it. I wondered, Could I build a Google-style search engine over everything I had ever done? And could we take this information and put it to good use: maybe helping people with Alzheimer’s or looking at calorie intake? I don’t think of it as taking pictures; I think of it as capturing data.”

The reactions from Gurrin’s family and friends to being constantly recorded suggests that we could all, ultimately, get quite used to it.

People are much more reluctant to have their voices recorded, as Gurrin and the team at Insight – the biggest data-analytics centre in Europe, and one of the largest in the world, with €75 million funding from Science Foundation Ireland – discovered when one of them tried to record sound a few years ago. Nobody spoke.

In every social situation Gurrin has to weigh up whether he needs to let people know he is photographing them. “Family, friends, colleagues, journalists: they already know, so there’s no need to say anything. But if I’m talking to people I don’t know for a minute or two then I have to tell them.”

Overall, however, Gurrin says his life is pretty dull. “Everyone’s is, really: get up, breakfast, work, lunch, work, dinner, socialise or watch TV or read a book in the evening, bed. But, yes, people do look at this and wonder, What are the shocking details? The camera is turned off at night when I’m asleep, as well as any time it’s not appropriate to record something.”

There will be a service to store and catalogue this information, and it will be bigger than Facebook, says Gurrin.

“It will know everything about you: every piece of food you eat, every social interaction . . . everything.

“We have to think carefully about how we do this. We don’t want a company that sells the data. Our team at Insight want to do something better. I don’t know yet what form this will take.

“Right now my vision is an archive to help you search your life and a number of medical applications which will help individuals and societies to understand disease and illness.”

Gurrin hopes a company will come along that will safely store all our lifelogged information. This could be a data harvester, like Facebook or Google, only the data it provided would be much, much more valuable to governments and advertisers.

Gurrin hopes he can create a company that only stores and never sells the data.