SFTW Thinking Machines 4

Each week Iain Simons selects a game for you to while away hours. Read about it, play it but don't l

Often the most fascinating parts of the game aren’t the outcome, but the decisions that lead one there.

Hearing a great commentator discussing a sport about which you know little can be one of the most exciting and illuminating of experiences.

That sensation of being rapidly inducted into strategies which were apparent, but not wholly understandable never fails to intoxicate.

I often feel this when hearing developers talking about videogames. In particular, some of the best demonstrations I’ve seen have seldom been about breathtaking new graphical capabilities, but artificial intelligence (A.I.).

Whilst new rendering technologies providing near photo-real graphics are usually touted as the enablers to making worlds which we can truly believe in, the truth is that the algorithms which determine the behaviour of in-game elements are far more persuasive.

The pursuit of convincing A.I. is a fascinating subject. To understand and create persuasive A.I.

Behaviour, one has to understand at least a little of what it is to be human. Fascinating though it is however, there’s always a slight feeling of discomfort that someone, somewhere is attempting to distill that slight feeling of discomfort into something that can be algorithmically reproduced.

Thinking Machines 4 is a more palatable version of that man-machine relationship, moreover - it’s also beautiful. Taking a rudimentary Chess program, with each turn it exposes the potential moves the computer is considering through a gracefully sketched diagram overlaid onto the board. The experience reveals its real depth only in the play of a full game. As the machine gradually refines and rejects strategies, the narrative of the game thinking before you becomes more and more compelling. The developer has posted an example gallery which demonstrates this well, although this is well worth a few minutes of your quiet attention to actually play.

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Thinking Machines 4

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.