Netflix is building you a cloud-connected brain for movie recommendations

14.02.2014, 9:41

Netflix subscribers know all too well that while the streaming service’s recommendations system is fairly accurate, it often lures them into adding too many movies that don’t get watched.

How about better movies?

That’s why Netflix is building a superior recommendation system to fine tune what it suggests goes into your queue, and it’s developing the algorithm with Deep Learning techniques.

Calling it Distributed Neural Networks, the company’s efforts use cloud computing from partner Amazon Web Services and GPUs from graphics card maker Nvidia.

Through this configuration and code Neural Network optimization, Netflix has been able to train the cloud for more personalized recommendations in just 47 minutes, down from 20 hours.

Netflix isn’t the only internet company with Deep Learning ambitions. Facebook hired NYU professor Yann LeCun to heads its AI lab and Google brought on Ray Kurzweil.

Google also bought an AI start-up DeepMind to go along with its acquisition of robot maker Boston Dynamics.

Netflix’s ambitions seem a little less scary than Google’s, except of course if you’re Comcast and Time Warner, which have banded together in the era of cable cord cutting.

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Twitter tests a big profile redesign, looks rather similar to Facebook Timeline

12.02.2014, 9:57

Taking all the pages from each other's books

There’s been a lot written about how Facebook has continued to adopt Twitter-like features such as hashtags and trending topics, but now it appears the latter is taking a page from the former’s playbook.

It does look like FB

Judging by an experimental version of its profile page, currently being tested on a small sample of users, Twitter seems to have taken a shine to the love-it-or-hate-it Facebook Timeline and wants it for its own.

First noted by a Mashable staffer (pictured), the redesigned profile page appears to take on many aspects of Zuckerberg’s biggest revamp of recent times.

From its non-linear layout and to focus on content cards rather than a list of text-based tweets, to the positioning of the profile photo, background photo and toolbar, the similarities are quite startling.

While it’s not certain whether Twitter ever plans to roll this version of the ‘Me’ page to all users, beyond this experimental stage, its appearance comes shortly after a tweaked page rollout out to all users.

That particular update, which brought a cleaner, clearer and whiter look, was tested for months, so don’t expect Twitter to roll-out this Timeline-like update any time soon.

So far the company has refused to respond to requests for comment.

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Face facts: No one likes Facebook but everyone’s on it

10.02.2014, 9:37

Happy birthday, dear evil data-harvesting loser portal (according to the web)

It’s been ten years. Ten years since some posh US school nerds developed an exclusive social network for themselves, probably to make the scoring out of ten of their female colleagues’ attractiveness a little bit easier.

Then it went global and, because we all sit on computers all day and like looking at photos of other people and gossiping, it somehow became almost compulsory to have a Facebook profile – if only for reassuring people and distant family members you used to know that you’re still not dead.

Facebook’s 10th anniversary celebrations saw the social network generating a weird “Look Back” greatest hits video compilation, which came across as part interactive funereal wake presentation and part letter from your most obsessed stalker.

It was cute, but has Facebook really changed our lives to such an extent that we’d miss it if it was gone? It certainly spearheaded the self-obsessed, narcissistic, selfie generation we now see, encouraging the internet warriors of the mid-2000s to emerge from behind their anonymous avatars and start writing online under their actual names.

But given how much people hate it – and how many people claim to never even use it – you’d think Facebook was still used by a handful of kids, not the 1.2 billion people who regularly log in.

The bitterness is everywhere. Beneath a workmanlike SEO list feature on the Daily Star, reader Jon Scott came up with an additional way in which Facebook has changed lives over the last decade, suggesting: “Fact 11: Facebook has split up more families and ruined more marriages than any other website.”

Only if you leave yourself signed in, Jon. Incognito mode, sign out, delete cache after every visit and it’s all fine.

Guardian reader Odl2000 summarised most normal peoples’ feelings toward Facebook with his comment, suggesting that: “Facebook has become a necessary evil in my life. If I leave I miss out on invites, photos and announcements that now happen only there.”

But he’s not happy about the situation, explaining: “I stay and I’m subjected to the gradual and complicit erosion of my privacy and the daily, eye-gougingly boring updates from people I wish you could unfriend, but can’t because they would take it as an insult akin to me calling their dad a donkey-f*****r.”

Listen up, Odl2000. There are zones. If you bother working what all the menus and dropdowns do, you can put the boring people into a sort of purgatory feed where they don’t know you secretly hate them and their petty lives.

Xarquid joined in with the battle to appear to be the most bored of it all, outlining his lack of affection for the site with: “The newsfeed is the same old tedium: how many miles someone ran, someone having a go at a motorist who cut them up, moan, bleat, whine… the new fad of posting links to all these list sites and daft videos with the captions ‘brilliant’ or ‘you’ve gotta see this’ killed it off for me.”

Putting more of a downer on the birthday celebrations is the emerging trend of the “neknomination,” a staggeringly dumb new way the kids have found to get drunk, briefly internet famous and, in some extremely sad cases, dead.

On the Independent, beneath a quote from Facebook saying that it wouldn’t be banning neknominate pages even in the face of deaths linked to the bizarre boozing trend, there were the sorts of incredibly insensitive comments that show internet users in their worst light. A person shielded behind the anonymous user name of Cos Lettuce said the sad death of a young man is “Darwinism in action.”

That sort of thing is why people ought to be made to post under their real names by the government or not be allowed anything more interactive than a kaleidoscope to play with.

Much more sensible a reply came from LJ, who got Facebook’s back with: “Teenagers don’t drink and do stupid stuff because Facebook tells them to, they do it (and will continue to do it) because they’re young, dumb and desperate for the approval/applause of their peers. Removing a page on Facebook would change nothing.”

Beneath a list of things on the BT site, reader Helen Savage typed out a verbal dislike of the social site, saying: “Facebook is for lonely people with nothing real going on in their lives. Ultimately we will ALL HAVE TO go on Facebook because that is where everyone will be and if you are not on it you will be the lonely one.”

She then used the oldest anti-Facebook argument in the world, that of having “real” friends she talks to on the telephone, digging herself deeper into a hole of confusion with: “I think it is for the socially inept as it stands and I do not use it because I have proper conversations with people either face to face or on the telephone if they are long distance.”

But she was politely hushed via a reply from Geoff Woodward, who put “things” into “perspective” with his reply. Geoff said: “What a mean-spirited person you are, Helen Savage! I personally, am severely disabled & as such, virtually housebound! Facebook has proved to be a lifeline for me over the past 4 years. With my adapted vehicle, I have been able to go out & meet several Facebook friends in person. Whilst meeting them, I have met other people, who in turn also became Facebook friends.”

Helen went quiet after that. Geoff got nine up-votes compared with Helen’s zero, so he was declared champion of that bit of the internet for a 24-hour period.

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Business lessons from 10 years of Facebook

07.02.2014, 11:29

Monetising 1.25 billion users

In the past few years Facebook has rapidly grown to attract 1.25 billion users worldwide, make annual profits of $1.5 billion and float on the NASDAQ for more than 100 billion dollars.

Clicking for success!

It’s doing something right. The world’s biggest social network recently passed its 10th birthday, and questions are being asked about the outlook for its next 10 years. Whatever the future holds, Facebook has set a great example of how to build an excellent user interface, and that example is one that businesses would do well to take note of.

One of the key reasons behind Facebook’s popularity with consumers is the high level of investment – and critical analysis – in its user interface, creating an engaging, positive journey for the user from start to finish and allowing navigation between activities to be simple, intuitive and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, “positive journey” does not describe the user experience of many internal company systems which tend to be designed for usability and functionality but often fall flat on both counts.

Simple tools like instant messenger, to supplement emails, or a central news feed that allows employees to flag relevant developments to their whole team at the click of a button, can go a long way towards improving functionality and user experience simultaneously.

Internal business systems should be designed to increase employee engagement and productivity, but the biggest challenge facing new systems tends to be adoption – the very problem Facebook has been so adept at solving.

The most common obstacle to adoption is marketing and awareness, however within a business the audience is, by default, captive, so surely it should be relatively easy to encourage internal adoption of new systems? However, the big struggle that businesses face is to build a system which is functional, engaging and enjoyable to use.

There are great rewards available to companies that follow the examples set by popular consumer websites – such as Facebook, Twitter and BuzzFeed – and use these to encourage adoption and integration of the systems that are central to their own business models.

Whilst part of the appeal of these sites is the non-commercial content, the user interface should not be underestimated. Plenty of social media competitors attempted to steal the crown of those we all know and use today, but it was those which created and continually evolved the most intuitive and effective user interface which now lead the market.

Facebook’s interface is the result of ten years of R&D by some of the best and most well funded minds that Silicon Valley has to offer. Companies wishing to develop their own systems will struggle to find a better source of inspiration.”

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Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others reveal US government request stats

04.02.2014, 9:07

Transparency reports of US government's legal data collection

There’s a little more transparency in the US government’s increasingly cloaked internet affairs, as tech giants are now able to disclose more information regarding government data requests.

Too much or too little?

For the first time, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo and others able to reveal the volumes of both National Security Letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act they have received.

The requests has forced the companies to turn over personal information of their online account holders. It’s not exactly what internet users signed up for, though the numbers do remain small.

“Only a fraction of a percent of our users are affected by these orders,” surmised Brad Smith, Microsoft’s executive vice president of legal and corporate affairs.

“In short, this means that we have not received the type of bulk data requests that are commonly discussed publicly regarding telephone records”

These internet companies, many with upwards of a billion of users each, have been lobbying the US government to ease its gag order on the information they can reveal to users.

The new data discloses the number of requests and how many users or accounts were affected in total, but it’s on a six-month delay. This is just the tipping point for these companies.

“More transparency is needed so everyone can better understand how surveillance laws work and decide whether or not they serve the public interest,” wrote Richard Salgado, Google legal director.

Further details like specific types of requests received and number of users they affect are desired.

As Microsoft pointed out, today’s numbers are sourced from government requests made through the proper channels.

“Nothing in today’s report minimizes the significance of efforts by governments to obtain customer information outside legal process,” noted Smith.

“Purported hacking of cables running between data centers of some of our competitors [has] been and remains a major concern across the tech sector.”

To that point, last month, it was alleged that British spies have penetrated fiber optic cables to collect YouTube views and Facebook “like” data in order to prevent overseas protests.

The British intelligence service GCHQ reportedly passed its methods along to its counterparts in the US, the Prism-linked NSA.

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Facebook already testing Graph Search for mobile on some users

03.02.2014, 12:46

Facebook's enhanced search rolling out for all soon

Facebook is testing out the Graph Search functionality for mobile devices, according to at least one user who is seeing the update land on their handset.

Facebook picture

The limited was first reported by a Mashable scribe this weekend and follows Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent vow to bring the contextual searches to mobile users sooner rather than later.

During last week’s quarterly earnings call the CEO said: “We’re really early in the game on this. You can see that because we haven’t even really rolled out our mobile version of graph search yet and we’re a mobile company.

“Pretty soon, you should expect us to roll out the mobile version of this. I think that’s going to be an important step because most of the usage of Facebook overall is on mobile.”

The enhanced search took, which allows users to discover posts, photos, restaurant recommendations and more rolled out to all users in July last year.

It’s a fairly decent tool for finding photos of you and your friends, your friends who live in particular cities, or even friends who’ve been posting about certain subjects.

As Zuckerberg said, the company is ‘early in the game’ with Graph Search and it’ll only improve as time progresses. That improvement will continue with the wider roll out on mobile devices.

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Facebook hints Graph Search for mobile soon, more standalone apps

30.01.2014, 13:13

Prepare for further iOS and Android tweaks

Facebook reached another mobile milestone today, declaring it has made more money from ads on its phone and tablet apps than its desktop site, and that’s spurring new mobile features.

FB Graph Search

In particular, the social network’s comprehensive Graph Search will make its way to mobile devices soon, announced CEO Mark Zuckerberg during Facebook’s fourth quarter earnings call.

“We’re really early in the game on this,” he said referring to the desktop-only graph search.

“You can see that because we haven’t even really rolled out our mobile version of graph search yet and we’re a mobile company.

“Pretty soon, you should expect us to roll out the mobile version of this. I think that’s going to be an important step because most of the usage of Facebook overall is on mobile.”

Facebook users can expect further tweaks to the company’s iOS and Android apps when graph search reaches mobile devices.

However, the changes are likely limited to English-speaking countries, as Graph Search has only recently exited beta in the US and begun to roll out in the UK.

“It’s only in English so far, and we have to internationalize it,” noted Zuckerberg. “There’s a long roadmap of things we need to do. But it’s going to be incredibly useful when it’s ready.”

He sees Graph Search’s wider roll out as a three to five year investment rather than a more typical one or two year project.

At issue are the trillions of pieces of content that people have shared on Facebook. Ranking it all is going to be a multi-year effort.

“As a number of people on the team who have worked on web search engines in the past have told me, a trillion pieces of content is more than the index in any web search engine,” he boasted.

Facebook didn’t have any more information on its loss among teens as daily active users, saying “it doesn’t have any new data to report today.”

However, Zuckerberg did hint that the company is interested in continuing to build apps outside of the Facebook platform like it has with Instagram and most recently Messenger.

“One of the things that we want to try to do over the next few years is build a handful of great new experiences that are separate from Facebook today that [give] people new ways to share.”

“You can see it from our own offering, not just from Facebook but also Instagram and Messenger already today. We’re going to keep on working on this over the next few years.”

That means the rumored Flipboard-esque Paper app may join Facebook’s standalone app list that currently consists of Instagram, Messenger, Pages and it’s ill-fated Snapchat clone, Poke.

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Facebook develops petabyte Blu-ray storage prototype

30.01.2014, 12:41

Out of the blue comes replacement cold storage

Facebook has developed a prototype Blu-ray storage system capable of holding 1 petabyte of data, a move that could revitalise the Blu-ray industry.

Like it or not, that’s BIG!

The social media giant is about to step on toes in the storage market by delivering on a promise it made at last year’s Open Compute Summit to use Blu-ray discs as a replacement for current cold storage systems.

The prototype, revealed by Facebook’s VP of Engineering Jay Parikh at this year’s summit, achieves the petabyte figure by using 10,000 Blu-ray discs in one cabinet, according to GigaOM. There are also plans to boost this up to a not too shabby 5 petabytes per cabinet.

Parikh said the new system would cut storage costs by 50 per cent and reduce energy consumption by 80 per cent, which should please the capitalists and environmentalists alike. They will also last for 50 years, easily trumping the survivability of existing hard drive storage.

The novel approach to cold storage could give Blu-ray a much-needed boost in the face of a shift away from disc storage to online streaming. With Netflix set to slowly ramp up its 4k efforts, and the Blu-ray Disc Association hoping to get a decent slice of the ultra high-definition market, a basic storage system could increase Blu-ray sales significantly.

Just in case you think Facebook is only experimenting at this stage, consider that it already has its first Blu-ray cold storage site in production, hosting 30 petabytes of data. It also plans to launch another in the near future, and expects to reach 150 petabytes within months.

If Facebook ever does lose most of its members, as Princeton University predicts, it could always consider becoming a data storage company. There’s nothing wrong with having a backup plan.

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Why Facebook’s latest Android update wants to read your text messages

28.01.2014, 14:32

It's down to 2-step authentication

Facebook’s latest Android update requires you to give it the fairly invasive permission to read your text messages.

Does Zuckerberg want to chat?

It was spotted and brought to the internet’s attention by a Reddit user, who assumed that the inclusion of access to your phone’s SMS and MMS messages was to allow Facebook to skim off more information about you for yet more targeted advertising.

But Facebook tells us it’s actually for a much less alarming reason. When we spoke to the social network, a spokesperson pointed us in the direction of Facebook Android engineer Franci Penov’s response to the post.

He explained that the READ_SMS permission is used to “automatically intercept login approvals SMS messages for people that have turned 2-factor authentication for their accounts, or for phone confirmation when you add a phone number to your Facebook account.”

If they could, Facebook’s engineers would make the permission more specific, so that the app can read only the messages sent from a specific number (although Penov also notes that this would cause a lot of problems given that the numbers used vary from country to country).

The other thing on the engineers’ wishlist is to tailor the required permissions based on your own preferences – so if you didn’t opt for 2-factor authentication on your Facebook account, the app wouldn’t request permission to read your messages.

So while the social network steered clear of explicitly telling us it’s not skimming your messages for marketing reasons, a relatively innocent explanation for the rather alarming sounding request does exist.

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Tech firms strike major deal with US gov to disclose data request figures

28.01.2014, 9:26

Some big Silicon Valley names are in on it

Update: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, and LinkedIn have issued the following statement announcing that they have withdrawn their lawsuits challenging the government’s gag order against FISA requests:

A little less marker, please!

“We filed our lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know about the volume and types of national security requests we receive. We’re pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information. While this is a very positive step, we’ll continue to encourage Congress to take additional steps to address all of the reforms we believe are needed.”

Original story continues below…

The US Department of Justice has announced a deal with tech firms that will allow companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple to reveal previously secret information about the numbers of requests for data they receive.

The numbers these companies will now be able to disclose include requests made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) as well as national security letters they receive in a year.

It’s a significant step forward towards greater transparency post-NSA revelations, though as with any brokerage, a few concessions were made.

The requests will need to be revealed in groups of 250 or 1,000, and there will be a two-year window for companies receiving orders for the first time and companies that have receives new types of requests. During that window, the orders cannot be disclosed.

Despite those restrictions – apparently designed to give the government and law enforcement time to act on information before requests are revealed – the changes are an improvement over the current set-up.

In an amusing reversal of the “Thanks Obama” meme, which humorously blames the president for things he has nothing to do with, it seems his plan for NSA reform actually is responsible for the deal. Or at least, that’s how US Attorney Eric Holder tells it.

The DOJ document was served to Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and LinkedIn via email. But it seems this applies to all tech companies who receive government data requests, not just those named.

Google has been fighting the FISA gag order since as early as summer 2013, and late last year it said that government requests related to user information had doubled in three years.

Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft also joined in on the fight in 2013.

Apple has responded to this announcement already, issuing a document titled “Update on National Security and Law Enforcement Orders” in which it discloses that it has received fewer than 250 government requests for user data related to fewer than 250 user accounts.

Attorney General Holder’s announcement also touched on the NSA’s bulk data collection programs like Prism and Dishfire.

He said some of these programs have already been shut down, and any remaining ones may be subject to transparency reports in the future.

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