With a click of the right-mouse button, my musclebound barbarian sinks his axe into the ground behind him, sweeps it forward and creates a shock wave that obliterates everything in its path. Ahead, a horde of undead creatures is repulsed by the blast, zombies flayed by the force of the air, skeletons scattered across the ground, wraiths dissipating into spectral dust. The room’s furnishing fly with them, chairs, candlesticks and barrels smashing into the far wall. The ground itself is scarred by the attack, a conical depression left in the floor as if struck by a meteorite airburst.
I’ve performed this attack countless times over the last weekend, and it never fails to light up my brain like Blackpool in September. The Diablo series represents video gaming in its purest and perhaps most reductive form and has exploited these feedback loops to enormous success in the last 25 years, reworking the complex rulesets of role-playing games into something less cerebral and more sensory. While there’s an argument to be had about how intellectually nourishing these games may be, Diablo 4 has a lot of seductive power. Clicking monsters to death in this game feels dangerously good.
Yet having spent 48 hours with the game during its beta phase, it’s clear there’s more to this than mindless monster-bashing. Diablo 4 sees the series return from a long hiatus after a third game that proved controversial in more ways than one. Partly because of this, it looks both backward and forward, addressing some criticisms of Diablo 3 while striving to compete in a world that has changed dramatically since 2012.
After a mixed reception to the colourful visuals of Diablo 3, Diablo 4 returns to being the moody goth kid of its RPG social group: pale-faced, clad in black and obsessed with death. The opening area, named Fractured Peaks, is an oppressive place where muddy, monster-ravaged villages cling to the edges of a snowy mountain range, with warrens of caves and dungeons concealed beneath the frozen surface. Said dungeons revel in their own dinginess. Painted in abundant dark shades, much like FromSoftware’s Bloodborne, the blackened walls and floors are slick with decaying viscera and often writhe with strange tendrils that grasp at you from the stonework.
Diablo 4’s appeal to the past isn’t purely stylistic. As your character accrues power across the game’s dark fantasy adventure, you must choose how to channel that power, picking skills and abilities that complement one another to make your chosen warrior an unstoppable destructive force. Diablo 4 ditches the previous game’s overly streamlined approach, returning to a more traditional skill tree that shows your character’s entire power trip at a glance.
I tested two of the five available character classes in the open beta – the barbarian and the sorcerer. What became obvious during my time with them is how intuitive character progression is. My sorceress, for example, offered an array of elemental powers to choose from. I could have made her an incandescent pyromancer, or a weaponised Elsa who froze her enemies to death. Instead, I focused on electrical abilities, Emperor Palpatine-ing my way through dungeons by zapping demons with bouncing bolts of lightning. This wasn’t the limit of my options, either. Diablo 4 let me further tailor these attacks to produce a collectible item known as “Crackling Energy”. As I plucked these orbs of static electricity from fallen foes, they’d discharge automatically when approaching new enemies. Hence, my sorceress could fry whole groups of demons before casting her first spell – a delightful sensation.
Structurally, Diablo 4 is different, as players now carve their way through a huge open world. For the beta, only the Fractured Peaks area was available to explore, but this nonetheless represents a sizeable and impressively freeform area. Although there is a central story to follow, it’s easy to get side-tracked into some offshoot adventure, helping a villager find her missing husband in some shadowy forest or delving into optional dungeons with foreboding names such as the Black Asylum. These secondary activities are tied together by “Renown”, a currency that, when accrued, periodically rewards players with extra gold, skill points, and other bonuses.
The looser structure creates a more coherent world, but it doesn’t radically change how Diablo plays. Instead, the open world exists mainly to facilitate Diablo 4’s new status as a persistent online game. Diablo 4 has extensive multiplayer features, with other players wandering freely around the game world able to periodically fight together as they explore individually, or actively join clans and embark on quests together. This ever-present multiplayer element could prove controversial, but interaction with other players isn’t mandatory, and you can happily plunder dungeons and pursue the central storyline solo.
While the story has always been a part of Diablo, its role is small compared with other RPGs – largely an excuse for players to mash monsters by the million. But Diablo 4 makes a more concerted effort to grab the player’s attention, breaking up the action with more elaborate cutscenes and dialogue that dwell on individual characters, and takes more time to explore the game’s pseudo-Christian lore. These sequences bring with them all the flair you’d expect from Blizzard, and an impressive cast that includes veteran voice actors such as Troy Baker and Jennifer Hale, alongside Hollywood names like Ralph Ineson.
Broadly, it’s a typical fantasy adventure, a grand battle between good and evil. There are cults. There are prophecies. There are more helpless villagers than you can shake a pitchfork at. But there is also an attempt at more nuanced characterisation. The main antagonist – the demonic goddess Lilith – is not wholly villainous, while the fallen angel Inarius, a central figure in the religion of the game’s longsuffering humans, is not wholly good. There’s enough of interest to be audible above the sound of battle, and it helps that the game takes itself seriously, avoiding the temptation to lace the narrative with knowing side-glances and ironic gags.
Some questions remain. While Diablo’s character progression is slick and intuitive, will it offer the same level of flexibility as other ARPGs, most notably Path of Exile, which stepped in during Diablo’s long absence? Moreover, what does this new multiplayer structure mean for Blizzard’s long-term monetisation plans – will we eventually be asked to pay for a subscription? It appears inevitable it will continue to evolve after launch, and the question is what form will that evolution take. This is a game that could change shape substantially in the coming years. In its current form at least, Diablo 4 seems like a worthy ascendant to the throne of destruction.
Typo blamed for Microsoft Azure DevOps outage in Brazil • The Register
Microsoft Azure DevOps, a suite of application lifecycle services, stopped working in the South Brazil region for about ten hours on Wednesday due to a basic code error.
On Friday Eric Mattingly, principal software engineering manager, offered an apology for the disruption and revealed the cause of the outage: a simple typo that deleted seventeen production databases.
Mattingly explained that Azure DevOps engineers occasionally take snapshots of production databases to look into reported problems or test performance improvements. And they rely on a background system that runs daily and deletes old snapshots after a set period of time.
During a recent sprint – a group project in Agile jargon – Azure DevOps engineers performed a code upgrade, replacing deprecated Microsoft.Azure.Managment.* packages with supported Azure.ResourceManager.* NuGet packages.
The result was a large pull request of changes that swapped API calls in the old packages for those in the newer packages. The typo occurred in the pull request – a code change that has to be reviewed and merged into the applicable project. And it led the background snapshot deletion job to delete the entire server.
“Hidden within this pull request was a typo bug in the snapshot deletion job which swapped out a call to delete the Azure SQL Database to one that deletes the Azure SQL Server that hosts the database,” said Mattingly.
Azure DevOps has tests to catch such issues, but according to Mattingly, the errant code only runs under certain conditions and thus isn’t well covered under existing tests. Those conditions, presumably, require the presence of a database snapshot that is old enough to be caught by the deletion script.
Mattingly said Sprint 222 was deployed internally (Ring 0) without incident due to the absence of any snapshot databases. Several days later, the software changes were deployed to the customer environment (Ring 1) for the South Brazil scale unit (a cluster of servers for a specific role). That environment had a snapshot database old enough to trigger the bug, which led the background job to delete the “entire Azure SQL Server and all seventeen production databases” for the scale unit.
The data has all been recovered, but it took more than ten hours. There are several reasons for that, said Mattingly.
One is that since customers can’t revive Azure SQL Servers themselves, on-call Azure engineers had to handle that, a process that took about an hour for many.
Another reason is that the databases had different backup configurations: some were configured for Zone-redundant backup and others were set up for the more recent Geo-zone-redundant backup. Reconciling this mismatch added many hours to the recovery process.
“Finally,” said Mattingly, “Even after databases began coming back online, the entire scale unit remained inaccessible even to customers whose data was in those databases due to a complex set of issues with our web servers.”
These issues arose from a server warmup task that iterated through the list of available databases with a test call. Databases in the process of being recovered chucked up an error that led the warm-up test “to perform an exponential backoff retry resulting in warmup taking ninety minutes on average, versus sub-second in a normal situation.”
Further complicating matters, this recovery process was staggered and once one or two of the servers started taking customer traffic again, they’d get overloaded, and go down. Ultimately, restoring service required blocking all traffic to the South Brazil scale unit until everything was sufficiently ready to rejoin the load balancer and handle traffic.
Various fixes and reconfigurations have been put in place to prevent the issue from recurring.
“Once again, we apologize to all the customers impacted by this outage,” said Mattingly. ®
What are the current trends in Ireland’s pharma sector?
SiliconRepublic.com took a look at PDA Ireland’s Visual Inspection event to learn about Ireland’s pharma sector and its biggest strengths.
Ireland’s pharmaceutical stakeholders gathered in Cork recently to learn the latest developments and regulatory changes in the sector.
The event was hosted by the Irish chapter of the Parenteral Drug Association (PDA), a non-profit trade group that shares science, technology and regulatory information to pharma and biopharma companies.
The association held a Visual Inspection event in Cork last month, where speakers shared their outlooks on the industry, the regulatory landscape and tips on product investigation.
PDA Ireland committee member Deidre Tobin told SiliconRepublic.com that one goal of the event was to get bring the industry together and help SMEs engage with top speakers.
“The mission of PDA is really to bring people together in industry and to have that network sharing, that information gathering so that we’re all consistent, we all have the same message,” Tobin said.
The sector also remains active in terms of merger and acquisition deals. A William Fry report claimed Pharma accounted for 12pc of all Irish M&A deals by volume in 2022.
Ruaidhrí O’Brien, head of UK and Ireland sales at Körber Pharma and a PDA Ireland member, said the country has a “wealth of experience” across various types of pharmaceutical production, such as API bulk and solid dosage production.
O’Brien also said Ireland has “skilled people” that are in senior levels within companies, which he feels is why existing companies continue to invest and why “we have amazing investments from all the global leaders”.
One speaker at the PDA Ireland Visual Inspection event was John Shabushnig, the founder of Insight Pharma Consulting LLC. He spoke about current and upcoming regulation impacting the global sector.
Shabushnig said he sees the overall industry understanding of what it can and can’t do “continuing to improve”. He also said there is better alignment between regulators and industry now “than I saw 10 or 20 years ago”.
Shabushnig spoke positively about the regulatory landscape overall and couldn’t think of any “big misses” in terms of industry ignoring regulation. But he did note that some developing areas in the industry are “a bit unknown”.
“Advanced therapies, cell and gene therapies, there are some unique challenges on inspecting those products that we’re kind of learning together at this point,” Shabushnig said.
But Shabushnig said there are also “big opportunities” ahead with new tools that can be taken advantage of. One example he gave was using AI for automated visual inspection, which Shabushnig described as a “very exciting tool”.
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Prof Saurabh Bagchi from Purdue University explains the purpose of AI black boxes and why researchers are moving towards ‘explainable AI’.
For some people, the term ‘black box’ brings to mind the recording devices in airplanes that are valuable for postmortem analyses if the unthinkable happens. For others, it evokes small, minimally outfitted theatres. But ‘black box’ is also an important term in the world of artificial intelligence.
AI black boxes refer to AI systems with internal workings that are invisible to the user. You can feed them input and get output, but you cannot examine the system’s code or the logic that produced the output.
Machine learning is the dominant subset of artificial intelligence. It underlies generative AI systems like ChatGPT and DALL-E 2. There are three components to machine learning: an algorithm or a set of algorithms, training data and a model.
An algorithm is a set of procedures. In machine learning, an algorithm learns to identify patterns after being trained on a large set of examples – the training data. Once a machine-learning algorithm has been trained, the result is a machine-learning model. The model is what people use.
For example, a machine-learning algorithm could be designed to identify patterns in images and the training data could be images of dogs. The resulting machine-learning model would be a dog spotter. You would feed it an image as input and get as output whether and where in the image a set of pixels represents a dog.
Any of the three components of a machine-learning system can be hidden, or in a black box. As is often the case, the algorithm is publicly known, which makes putting it in a black box less effective. So, to protect their intellectual property, AI developers often put the model in a black box. Another approach software developers take is to obscure the data used to train the model – in other words, put the training data in a black box.
The opposite of a black box is sometimes referred to as a glass box. An AI glass box is a system whose algorithms, training data and model are all available for anyone to see. But researchers sometimes characterise aspects of even these as black box.
That’s because researchers don’t fully understand how machine-learning algorithms, particularly deep-learning algorithms, operate. The field of explainable AI is working to develop algorithms that, while not necessarily glass box, can be better understood by humans.
Thinking Outside The Black Box
In many cases, there is good reason to be wary of black box machine-learning algorithms and models. Suppose a machine-learning model has made a diagnosis about your health. Would you want the model to be black box or glass box? What about the physician prescribing your course of treatment? Perhaps she would like to know how the model arrived at its decision.
What if a machine-learning model that determines whether you qualify for a business loan from a bank turns you down? Wouldn’t you like to know why? If you did, you could more effectively appeal the decision, or change your situation to increase your chances of getting a loan the next time.
Black boxes also have important implications for software system security. For years, many people in the computing field thought that keeping software in a black box would prevent hackers from examining it and therefore it would be secure. This assumption has largely been proven wrong because hackers can reverse engineer software – that is, build a facsimile by closely observing how a piece of software works – and discover vulnerabilities to exploit.
If software is in a glass box, software testers and well-intentioned hackers can examine it and inform the creators of weaknesses, thereby minimising cyberattacks.
Saurabh Bagchi is professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of corporate partnerships in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University in the US. His research interests include dependable computing and distributed systems.