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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Today It’s Phone Numbers, Tomorrow: Relationships. Why Our Computers Will Know Our Friends Better Than We Do

A couple of weeks ago I was on BBC Breakfast talking about the stress that can be caused when our Facebook circles — mostly work and life — overlap. It reminded me of a paper from a recent conference I attended at Lancaster University where an academic was trying to address precisely this issue.

Overlapping online relationships is not a new problem: Google was trying to solve it with the introduction of Circles in Google Plus. If you’re not yet a user of this particular entry in the pantheon of social networks, Circles are a way of circumscribing the different segments of your life into multiple overlapping groups of contacts. You can choose which of your circles receives each status update/piece of content. Your family might see things your friends don’t, or you might have different circles of business colleague who are privileged with different levels of information.

This isn’t a bad solution but it is a little clunky. I could try to define my relationships with contacts in the rich, minute detail that truly represents every day life, but this would take a long time to set up properly, and make every post on the network painful as I tried to decide which circles ought to see everything.

Instead I — like many people — have historically maintained just three ‘Circles’, albeit using an even less sophisticated approach than Google Plus’s Circles: Facebook is for friends and family, LinkedIn is for work, Twitter is for friends and work. Anything I wanted to post in any of those networks I have mentally edited for appropriateness to the relevant network.

There are of course finer controls over access within the social networks — particularly Facebook with its own version of Google’s Circles — but the reality is that few people use them. Particularly when they are having a good time: the posts that happen late at night after a couple of shandies are likely to be the ones that cause the most issues with both your work and social lives.

So we either all need to become a lot more open, or we need a more sophisticated solution.

This is where the academic comes in. Dr Jose M. Such at the Security Lancaster research group is working on a system that can automatically determine our level of ‘intimacy’ with different contacts based on our previous interactions. And based on data from Facebook the group has already produced a software tool that can model intimacy with 90% accuracy.

This intimacy score enables a system to automatically determine the proper privacy policy between you and each other member of the network.

For example, it could decide whether I can access an item — say a photo — based on my relationship with the owner of the item. It could also take account of the intimacy scores between me and all the people tagged in the photo before it made a decision. I’d probably never see this calculation — the picture just wouldn’t appear in my timeline if the compounded intimacy scores didn’t justify it.

In the early days I think it’s unlikely we would allow such a system to make all the decisions for us. At the minimum we might want ‘Pull’ and ‘Push’ buttons alongside the ‘Like’ to adjust the intimacy level between ourselves and others. And we may need more than one dimension in the scoring: there are different levels of intimacy in the office environment that are entirely separate to those in our social lives. Apart from the occasions that the two overlap, which is where this whole conversation started in the first place…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Joy of Tech Facebook Messenger to Take on SMS

I was on 5live’s Saturday Edition this week talking about apps: You candownload the Joy of Tech podcast based on the show here or Listen Again to the show here.


It was the twentieth anniversary of the text message last week. But it’s unlikely to see another anniversary of the same magnitude. Alternative messaging platforms have been stalking the simple SMS and are poised to take over — in a relatively short space of time.

Cross-platform apps like WhatsApp send SMS-style messages but over the Internet rather than the backchannels of the mobile phone system. This is cheaper, more efficient, and enables richer features (real-time chat, delivery/read receipts, integrated video/images etc) at no extra cost. As a result WhatsApp now has an estimated 250 million users (according to this Guardian piece).

But Facebook already has a billion users, and it continues to grow at a healthy rate in the developing nations (source). If Facebook can convince a sufficient proportion of us to use its new Messenger application over SMS and the other Internet-based alternatives, it could rapidly take a significant chunk of the messaging market.

In 2012 the world is likely to send around 10 trillion SMS messages. But within a couple of years that number is likely to tumble as more and more of us move over to Internet-based messaging. Facebook is likely to play a big role in this but I don’t think that is the endgame.

What the success of SMS, Twitter and WhatsApp show is that there is a value in the ability to share short text-based messages. They have a number of advantages over voice in many circumstances: they can be sent and received discreetly, they can contain rich content like web links and images, and they can be shared easily with one or many people. For these reasons, though the number of messages sent via SMS is likely to go down, the total number of short messages will continue to climb.

Initially commercial, proprietary systems will drive this growth. But after a while it doesn’t make sense to us as users to be locked into single network that may not be the one our friends choose. When short messages form a large proportion of Internet traffic, surely it makes sense to have an Internet standard for short messages? The same way we all use different services and software to send, receive and manage email but all are interoperable.

Facebook is likely to leverage its short message service for short term gain but in the long term, I believe and hope that we will all be able to chat away on an open Internet standard for short messaging.


Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

My Sleeves Are Too Long: Why Home Fabs Will Replace Fashion Factories

I struggle with clothes. Apart from having a limited sense of style, I also have a slightly odd body shape. My neck is thicker and my chest broader than my height would imply. Even with my newly svelte figure (I’ve shed over a stone and a half in the last few weeks — a different story), I have trouble finding clothes that fit. Most noticeably, the arms are too long in any shirt or jacket that I buy to fit around my rather chunky neck*.

I am not alone in this. By definition, most people have a body shape that is not average. Finding something as basic as a pair of jeans that fit all of our various contours is a challenge for most people.

As a solution we could all have our clothes made to measure. This is a very pleasurable experience — I have a couple of bespoke suits — but it is a rather expensive way to fill a wardrobe. And I can’t see my tailors (the estimable Long, Berry and Wild on Manchester’s Lever Street), making me a hoodie or a snowboarding jacket, so my fashion options may be a little limited.

In the future I can see that there will be a better alternative. And it starts with 3D printers — or at least their descendants.

3D printers have been one of the big tech stories of 2012, as their price has tumbled from the tens of thousands to the single thousands. It won’t be long before your local PC World, Maplin or even B&Q starts selling them for under a grand. And from there the price is likely to tumble further.

But what about fashion? It’s unlikely that the first few generations of 3D printers will be capable of dealing with the variety of materials and manufacturing methods involved in something as complex as a technical jacket. But down the line larger, more sophisticated fabricators or ‘fabs’ will almost certainly be capable of assembling clothing matched to our exact measurements.

Even these devices may have their limits: larger or more complex designs may require a trip to the shops still. In fact this is almost certainly where these devices will first appear.

It’s important to note that these will not be robot cutting and sewing machines: the process is not one of cutting out a pattern and stitching. It is a process of laying down consecutive layers of liquid material that then sets and is bonded together to form a complete whole. While energy intensive this should be much less wasteful.

And the results should be fine and intricate constructions with much less stitching between segments and layers — a process little different to how clothes were made in the middle ages — as whole garments can be constructed as single pieces.

There are, as usual, many questions to answer for this little dream to be made reality: for a start how will we deal with the various materials the machines will need to use? Will it all be synthetics or will they be able to handle cottons and other natural materials? Will the economics stack up vs mass production of clothes that roughly fit? How will the licensing of designs work?

All to be discussed and dealt with, but not insurmountable challenges. And when they can be nailed, I might finally have sleeves that don’t drape over my hands.

*Crueller friends might suggest my overdeveloped neck is required to support my rather large head.


Tom Cheesewright