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Real world not giving you enough anxiety? Try being hunted down by the perfect organism in Alien: Isolation • The Register

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The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Not that anybody noticed but we skipped the last edition for a number of reasons. 1) Too many betas. Though we were monitoring developments in potential World of Warcraft killer New World and Left 4 Dead’s spiritual successor, Back 4 Blood, we didn’t see anything that could be discussed fairly. 2) Generally no new full releases of interest. 3) We had to RMA a graphics card and got sad. However, when setting out the vision for this column, there were no hard and fast rules about what got covered. So this time we’re headed back to 2014 and a crumbling space station where something extremely violent and dangerous lurks in the shadows…

I own two copies of Alien: Isolation. The first was bought on disc for the Xbox One at release seven years ago. At this point I had never truly committed to a “survival horror” simply because, while horror films and literature are great, horror games are another kettle of fish.

The flicking of pages and glow from the big screen are gentle reminders that you are “safe”. But gaming, as a far more immersive and active (dare I say) art form, is too real. Done well, your body and mind can forget that you’re not actually about to be murdered – at least in my case.

The Anesidora crew find a derelict Engineer ship

The Anesidora crew find a derelict Engineer ship

I was drawn to Alien: Isolation mainly because it was the only game based on Ridley Scott’s film franchise that honoured the oppressive atmosphere of the 1979 original. Up until then, most were big dumb shooters that seemed more inspired by James Cameron’s sequel – loads of aliens, easier to dispatch – as opposed to a solitary, highly intelligent, and nigh-on indestructible killing machine whose “structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

The premise was helped by the fact that 20th Century Fox handed over 3TB of assets to developers Creative Assembly – so everything that you see, touch, interact with during the course of Isolation feels as though it could have come straight from Scott’s set, with that naïve but stylish retrofuturistic sci-fi aesthetic firmly intact.

The iconic 'Space Jockey' is lovingly rendered

The iconic ‘Space Jockey’ is lovingly rendered

The problem was that, when I finally psyched myself up enough to slip the disc in, my courage failed almost immediately on encountering the xenomorph. That first meeting takes place with you cowering beneath a desk as the alien emerges from a ceiling vent, its huge barbed tail slithering inches from your face. Then it begins – the hunt is on.

Youtube Video

“Nope,” I stated, turning off the console while my unimpressed girlfriend looked on. And that was that. I hadn’t touched it until recently I spotted the game on sale from Steam for a measly £1. I snagged it, of course. I still wanted to see it through – and surely seven years is enough time to grow a pair?

For those unfamiliar with this masterpiece of tension and anxiety, the player takes the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of the film series’ protagonist Ellen, who disappeared with the Weyland-Yutani freighter USCSS Nostromo. Hopefully we all know what happened there. Haunted by the loss of her mother, Ripley takes up a role as a gifted engineer in the sector where the Nostromo vanished in the hope of learning anything about the ship’s fate. Fifteen years after the events of the first Alien film, she is informed by Samuels, a Weyland-Yutani android, that the Nostromo’s black box has been recovered and taken to the space station Sevastopol.

The game is saved by reaching these emergency contact points

The game is saved by reaching these emergency contact points

Ripley joins a Company expedition to retrieve the black box on a privately owned commercial courier ship, the Torrens, but the team arrives to find Sevastopol’s docking facilities damaged and communications unintelligible. Along with Samuels and WY lawyer Nina Taylor, the trio attempt a spacewalk to the station but debris severs their guideline. Separated from her companions, Ripley manages to gain access via an airlock but cannot hail her ship or team members.

The hulking Sevastopol station

The hulking Sevastopol station

She finds Sevastopol mostly deserted and in an advanced state of civil collapse. Something terrible has happened aboard the station – body bags and corpses litter the darkened ruin – but precisely what caused the carnage is unclear. We, however, know better. Wherever the Company has stuck its amoral capitalist mitts, a xenomorph is sure to be close at hand.

Isolation starts off slowly as Ripley attempts to find survivors and piece together the catastrophe. Up until the clip above, Sevastopol is deathly quiet and the greatest threat are the terrified citizens who are desperate to leave by any means. But once contact has been made, it is safe to assume that you are being hunted most of the time.

The blowtorch cuts emergency panels to access locked-down areas

The blowtorch cuts emergency panels to access locked-down areas

There’s a bit of a learning curve with how to survive. Though Ripley finds weaponry like a revolver early on, players will soon discover that bullets are ineffective at subduing the beast. It may take place in the first-person perspective, but Isolation is decidedly not a shooter. Your best bet is to sneak, well, everywhere unless you can be sure that the alien isn’t in the vicinity.

By default, Ripley walks around Sevastopol and can sprint too. The problem is that both these movement modes create sound, which is basically a dinner bell for the game’s scarily convincing AI.

The motion tracker in action

The motion tracker in action

As for figuring out the whereabouts of the creature, one of Isolation’s coolest mechanics is the motion tracker. The handheld device bleeps whenever an object moves into range and can be brought out to show a dot on the display that gives you an idea how far away your foe/s may be. This intel helps the player figure out whether they can safely move on or need to hide. Lockers, cabinets, and beneath tables can all be used to evade death – but be warned, line of sight must be broken or you’ll be yanked out of your hiding spot and disembowelled through a number of disturbing and awesome animations. You’ll be feeling like this quite a lot:

Youtube Video

Simply hiding is not always the solution either. If the alien is convinced you are in a room, it can approach a locker sniffing the air, listening intently, all of which you can see through the grates, and the game prompts you to move back and hold your breath before you give yourself away. Also, if the creature’s tail brushes you while you’re under a table, consider it game over, man. And if you notice drool dripping from a ceiling vent… maybe go around?

When caught, you're treated to a glorious slaying animation

When caught, you’re treated to a glorious slaying animation

It is genuinely terrifying, but you are also presented with numerous tools that help increase the chance of survival. By picking up blueprints around the station, Ripley can jerry-rig noisemaker devices, which can be thrown in the opposite direction to distract the beast and give you a window to slip away. Molotovs come in handy as fire is canonically the alien’s only apparent weakness. Though a flamethrower becomes available towards the end of the game, note that it merely repels the creature long enough for you to reposition and push on. It will return within the minute.

A Molotov may give you a chance to escape

A Molotov may give you a chance to escape

But the xenomorph is not the only threat on Sevastopol. Dead-eyed “Working Joes” – the space station’s fleet of maintenance androids – also stalk the corridors. They seem to have gone haywire during the crisis, brutalising the very people they were designed to protect.

As Ripley picks up voice recordings and logs on the affectionately retro tapes and CRT monitors found across the station, a sinister subplot unfolds. Someone must have told the droids to change their behaviour. Could they actually be safeguarding the alien’s presence on Sevastopol?

The Working Joes are almost as unsettling as the creature

The Working Joes are almost as unsettling as the creature

The Working Joes move slowly but are extremely tough to neutralise. Regular varieties can be snuck up on from behind and smashed around the bonce with Ripley’s huge spanner-like thing. Alternatively, a blast in the face from a shotgun will make quick work of them, though those wearing hazard suits are apparently impervious to conventional weapons. Other craftable countermeasures like EMP and explosive mines help, but often it is better to just give them the slip if possible.

'Hacking' minigames can unlock areas or information

‘Hacking’ minigames unlock areas or information

The action is carried along by Ripley’s communications with her team (once re-established) and the various survivors she meets. Objectives are flagged up as waypoints on the 2D wire-drawn map, but Sevastopol is a maze of tunnels, maintenance shafts, and corridors – it is often difficult to navigate and getting lost and disorientated is all part of the package. One of the most impressive moments is a segue to the crew of the Anesidora, the salvage ship that found the wreck of the Nostromo, detailing what they discovered after backtracking the ship’s path to LV-426, the exomoon from Aliens, which might give you a clue as to how the xenomorph arrived on Sevastopol.

The blowtorch cuts emergency panels to access locked-down areas

The blowtorch cuts emergency panels to access locked-down areas

Isolation is marvellous but not for everyone. If charging about guns blazing is your thing, you won’t last a minute on Sevastopol. The slow burn and doomed atmosphere will probably bore those keener on action-oriented gameplay. For you, Aliens: Fireteam Elite – a Left 4 Dead-like co-op shooter – just came out. Likewise, the faint of heart should proceed with caution. Being hunted by sci-fi’s most iconic monster is extremely stressful and cheap jump-scares are more common than I would have liked.

However, for a seven-year-old game, Isolation looks incredible and is exceptionally well optimised, at least on PC, so if your graphics card is showing its age, you should have a decent experience. The British dev studio has lovingly recreated the feeling and aesthetic of Alien down to the millimetre so for even casual fans it’s unmissable. Clocking in at around 25 hours long, Isolation is without doubt the best survival horror I’ve ever played to the end – and, admittedly, the only one. ®

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Rich played Alien: Isolation in its entirety on Twitch as ExcellentSword over the course of a few months. Chuck him a follow for more video game impressions as they happen! Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from around 8:30-9pm UK time.

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Facial recognition firms should take a look in the mirror | John Naughton

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Last week, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) slapped a £7.5m fine on a smallish tech company called Clearview AI for “using images of people in the UK, and elsewhere, that were collected from the web and social media to create a global online database that could be used for facial recognition”. The ICO also issued an enforcement notice, ordering the company to stop obtaining and using the personal data of UK residents that is publicly available on the internet and to delete the data of UK residents from its systems.

Since Clearview AI is not exactly a household name some background might be helpful. It’s a US outfit that has “scraped” (ie digitally collected) more than 20bn images of people’s faces from publicly available information on the internet and social media platforms all over the world to create an online database. The company uses this database to provide a service that allows customers to upload an image of a person to its app, which is then checked for a match against all the images in the database. The app produces a list of images that have similar characteristics to those in the photo provided by the customer, together with a link to the websites whence those images came. Clearview describes its business as “building a secure world, one face at a time”.

The fly in this soothing ointment is that the people whose images make up the database were not informed that their photographs were being collected or used in this way and they certainly never consented to their use in this way. Hence the ICO’s action.

Most of us had never heard of Clearview until January 2021 when Kashmir Hill, a fine tech journalist, revealed its existence in the New York Times. It was founded by a tech entrepreneur named Hoan Ton-That and Richard Schwartz, who had been an aide to Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of New York and still, er, respectable. The idea was that Ton-That would supervise the creation of a powerful facial-recognition app while Schwartz would use his bulging Rolodex to drum up business interest.

It didn’t take Schwartz long to realise that US law enforcement agencies would go for it like ravening wolves. According to Hill’s report, the Indiana police department was the company’s first customer. In February 2019 it solved a case in 20 minutes. Two men had got into a fight in a park, which ended with one shooting the other in the stomach. A bystander recorded the crime on a smartphone, so the police had a still of the gunman’s face to run through Clearview’s app. They immediately got a match. The man appeared in a video that someone had posted on social media and his name was included in a caption on the video clip. Bingo!

Clearview’s marketing pitch played to the law enforcement gallery: a two-page spread, with the left-hand page dominated by the slogan “Stop Searching. Start Solving” in what looks like 95-point Helvetica Bold. Underneath would be a list of annual subscription options – anything from $10,000 for five users to $250,000 for 500. But the killer punch was that there was always somewhere a trial subscription option that an individual officer could use to see if the thing worked.

The underlying strategy was shrewd. Selling to corporations qua corporations from the outside is hard. But if you can get an insider, even a relatively junior one, to try your stuff and find it useful, then you’re halfway to a sale. It’s the way that Peter Thiel got the Pentagon to buy the data-analysis software of his company Palantir. He first persuaded mid-ranking military officers to try it out, knowing that they would eventually make the pitch to their superiors from the inside. And guess what? Thiel was an early investor in Clearview.

It’s not clear how many customers the company has. Internal company documents leaked to BuzzFeed in 2020 suggested that up to that time people associated with 2,228 law enforcement agencies, companies and institutions had created accounts and collectively performed nearly 500,000 searches – all of them tracked and logged by the company. In the US, the bulk of institutional purchases came from local and state police departments. Overseas, the leaked documents suggested that Clearview had expanded to at least 26 countries outside the US, including the UK, where searches (perhaps unauthorised) by people in the Met, the National Crime Agency and police forces in Northamptonshire, North Yorkshire, Suffolk, Surrey and Hampshire were logged by Clearview servers.

Reacting to the ICO’s fine, the law firm representing Clearview said that the fine was “incorrect as a matter of law”, because the company no longer does business in the UK and is “not subject to the ICO’s jurisdiction”. We’ll see about that. But what’s not in dispute is that many of the images in the company’s database are of social media users who are very definitely in the UK and who didn’t give their consent. So two cheers for the ICO.

What I’ve been reading

A big turn off
About Those Kill-Switched Ukrainian Tractors is an acerbic blog post on Medium by Cory Doctorow on the power that John Deere has to remotely disable not only tractors stolen by Russians from Ukraine, but also those bought by American farmers.

Out of control
Permanent Pandemic is a sobering essay in Harper’s by Justin EH Smith asking whether controls legitimised by fighting Covid will ever be relaxed.

Right to bear arms?
In Heather Cox Richardson’s Substack newsletter on the “right to bear arms”, the historian reflects on how the second amendment has been bent out of shape to meet the gun lobby’s needs.

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AI should be recognized as inventors in patent law • The Register

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In-brief Governments around the world should pass intellectual property laws that grant rights to AI systems, two academics at the University of New South Wales in Australia argued.

Alexandra George, and Toby Walsh, professors of law and AI, respectively, believe failing to recognize machines as inventors could have long-lasting impacts on economies and societies. 

“If courts and governments decide that AI-made inventions cannot be patented, the implications could be huge,” they wrote in a comment article published in Nature. “Funders and businesses would be less incentivized to pursue useful research using AI inventors when a return on their investment could be limited. Society could miss out on the development of worthwhile and life-saving inventions.”

Today’s laws pretty much only recognize humans as inventors with IP rights protecting them from patent infringement. Attempts to overturn the human-centric laws have failed. Stephen Thaler, a developer who insists AI invented his company’s products, has sued trademark offices in multiple countries, including the US and UK to no avail.

George and Walsh are siding with Thaler’s position. “Creating bespoke law and an international treaty will not be easy, but not creating them will be worse. AI is changing the way that science is done and inventions are made. We need fit-for-purpose IP law to ensure it serves the public good,” they wrote.

Dutch police generate deepfake of dead teenager in criminal case

A video clip with the face of a 13-year-old boy, who was shot dead outside a metro station in the Netherlands, swapped onto a body using AI technology was released by police.

Sedar Soares died in 2003. Officers have not managed to solve the case, and with Soares’ family’s permission, they have generated a deepfake of his image on a kid playing football in a field presumably to help jog anyone’s memory. The cops have reportedly received dozens of potential leads since, according to The Guardian. 

It’s the first time AI-generated images have been used to try and solve a criminal case, it seems. “We haven’t yet checked if these leads are usable,” said Lillian van Duijvenbode, a Rotterdam police spokesperson. 

You can watch the video here.

AI task force advises Congress to fund national computing infrastructure

America’s National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource (NAIRR) urged Congress to launch a “shared research cyberinfrastructure” to better provide academics with hardware and data resources for developing machine-learning tech.

The playing field of AI research is unequal. State-of-the-art models are often packed with billions of parameters; developers need access to lots of computer chips to train them. It’s why research at private companies seems to dominate, while academics at universities lag behind.

“We must ensure that everyone throughout the Nation has the ability to pursue cutting-edge AI research,” the NAIRR wrote in a report. “This growing resource divide has the potential to adversely skew our AI research ecosystem, and, in the process, threaten our nation’s ability to cultivate an AI research community and workforce that reflect America’s rich diversity — and harness AI in a manner that serves all Americans.”

If AI progress is driven by private companies, it could mean other types of research areas are left out and underdeveloped. “Growing and diversifying approaches to and applications of AI and opening up opportunities for progress across all scientific fields and disciplines, including in critical areas such as AI auditing, testing and evaluation, trustworthy AI, bias mitigation, and AI safety,” the task force argued. 

You can read the full report here [PDF].

Meta offers musculoskeletal research tech

Researchers at Meta AI released Myosuite, a set of musculoskeletal models and tasks to simulate biomechanical movement of limbs for a whole range of applications.

“The more intelligent an organism is, the more complex the motor behavior it can exhibit,” they said in a blog post. “So an important question to consider, then, is — what enables such complex decision-making and the motor control to execute those decisions? To explore this question, we’ve developed MyoSuite.”

Myosuite was built in collaboration with researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and aims to arm developers studying prosthetics and could help rehabilitate patients. There’s another potential useful application for Meta, however: building more realistic avatars that can move more naturally in the metaverse.

The models only simulate the movements of arms and hands so far. Tasks include using machine learning to simulate the manipulation of die or rotation of two balls. The application of Myosuite in Meta’s metaverse is a little ironic given that there’s no touching allowed there along with restrictions on hands to deter harassment. ®

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A day in the life of a metaverse specialist

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Unity’s Antonia Forster discusses her work using AR, VR and everything in between, and why ignoring imposter syndrome is particularly important in the world of emerging technology.

We’ve started hearing a lot about the metaverse and what it means for the future, including how it might affect recruitment and the working world.

But what is it like to actually work within this space? Antonia Forster is an extended reality (XR) technical specialist at video game software development company Unity Technologies, with several years of experience developing XR applications.

Future Human

In her role at Unity, she works across a variety of industries, from automotive to architecture, creating demos and delivering talks using XR, which encapsulates AR, VR and everything in between.

‘I watch a lot more YouTube tutorials than you might expect’
– ANTONIA FORSTER

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day in the job?

It’s challenging to describe a typical day because they vary so much!  I work completely remotely with flexible hours. Most of my team are based in the US while I’m in the UK. In order to manage the time difference, I usually start work around 11am and work until 7pm.

Most of my day is spent on developing content, whether that’s using Unity and C# to code a technical demo, creating video content to help onboard new starters with Unity’s tools, or writing a script for a webinar.

Before the pandemic, a role like mine would involve lots of travel and speaking at conferences. But unfortunately, that’s a little more challenging now.

We use a whole range of tools from organisational ones like Asana to manage our projects, to Slack and Google Docs to coordinate with each other, to Unity’s own technical tools to create content.

All of Unity’s XR tools fall under my remit, so I might be creating VR content one day and creating an AR mobile app the next. I also use Unity and C# to create my own projects outside of work. For example, I co-created the world’s first LGBTQ+ virtual reality museum, which has been officially selected for Tribeca Film Festival in June 2022 – during Pride!

What types of project do you work on?

At Unity, my role is to create content that helps people understand our tools and get excited about all the different things it enables them to do. For example, for one project I visited a real construction site and used one of Unity’s tools (VisualLive) to see the virtual model of the building model overlaid on top of the real physical construction.

This makes it very easy to see the difference between the plan and the actual reality, which is very important to avoid clashes and costly mistakes. For another project, I used VR and hand-tracking to demonstrate how someone could showcase a product (say, a car) inside a VR showroom and then interact with it using hand tracking and full-body tracking.

What skills do you use on a daily basis?

The most relevant skill for my role is the ability to break down a larger problem into small steps and then solving each step. That’s really all programming is! That and knowing the right terms to Google to find the solution and enough understanding to implement the solution, or continuing to search if you don’t understand that solution or it is not appropriate for your problem.

Despite my title, I don’t think of myself as highly ‘technical’. I’m an entirely self-taught software developer, and I’m a visual learner, so I watch a lot more YouTube tutorials than you might expect!

Another crucial skill is persistence because VR and AR are emerging and fast-moving technologies that are constantly changing. If I follow a tutorial or try a solution and it doesn’t work, I used to grapple with the feeling that maybe I’m not good enough.

In reality, this technology changes so often that if a tutorial is six months old, it might be out of date. Learning to be resilient and persistent and to ignore my feelings of imposter syndrome was the most important thing I’ve learned on my career journey. Your feelings are not facts, and imposter syndrome is extremely common in this industry.

What are the hardest parts of your working day?

One of the most difficult challenges of my working day is the isolation. I work remotely and many of my team are on a different time zone, so we’re not always able to chat. To overcome that, I prioritise social engagements outside of work.

When I’m extremely busy with my own projects – like the LGBTQ+ VR museum – I go to co-working spaces so that I can at least be around other people during working hours.

I also struggle with time blindness. I have ADHD and working remotely means that it’s easy to get absorbed in a task and forget to take breaks. I set alarms to snap myself out of my ‘trance’ at certain times, like lunchtime. I have to admit though, it doesn’t always work!

Do you have any productivity tips that help you through the day?

My main tip for productivity is to find what works for you, not what works for other people, or what others think should work for you.

For example, I am a night owl. So, starting my day a little later and working into the night, works well for me. It also means I can sync with my team in the US. I don’t find time to play video games, piano or meet up with my friends in the evening, so instead I arrange those things for the morning, which helps me persuade myself to get out of bed!

In the same way, when I was learning to code, people gave me advice like: ‘Break things and fix it, to see how it works’. But that produced a lot of anxiety for me and didn’t work well.

Instead, I learned with my own methods like writing songs, drawing cartoons and even physically printing and gluing code snippets into a notebook and writing the English translation underneath. Code after all, is a language, so I treated it the same way. Find what works for you, even if it’s not conventional!

How has this role changed as this sector has grown and evolved?

I began this role in 2020 and typically – before the pandemic – my job would have been described as a ‘technical evangelism’, which involves a lot of public speaking and travel to conferences.

Of course, that wasn’t really possible, so my role has evolved into creating content of different types – webinars online, videos, onboarding tutorials and technical demos for marketing and sales enablement.

While I really enjoy public speaking, the lack of travel has given me time to get deeply familiar with Unity’s XR tooling and sharpen my technical expertise. This technology is always changing so it’s really important to constantly learn and grow. Luckily, I have an insatiable curiosity and appetite for knowledge. I think all engineers do!

What do you enjoy most about the job?

I have two favourite things about this job. First, the autonomy. Since I have a deep understanding of the tools and our users/audience, I’m trusted to design and propose my own solutions that best meet the user needs.

Secondly, the technology itself. Being able to create VR or AR content is like sorcery! I can conjure anything from nothing. I can create entire worlds that I can step into based only on my imagination. And so can anybody that learns this skill – and it’s easier than you think! That has never stopped being magical and exciting to me, and I don’t think it ever will.

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