Daily Archives: April 8, 2008

Matrix-style virtual worlds ‘a few years away’

matrix pod

NewScientist.com | Apr 3, 2008

By Colin Barras

Are supercomputers on the verge of creating Matrix-style simulated realities? Michael McGuigan at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, thinks so. He says that virtual worlds realistic enough to be mistaken for the real thing are just a few years away.

In 1950, Alan Turing, the father of modern computer science, proposed the ultimate test of artificial intelligence – a human judge engaging in a three-way conversation with a machine and another human should be unable to reliably distinguish man from machine.

A variant on this “Turing Test” is the “Graphics Turing Test”, the twist being that a human judge viewing and interacting with an artificially generated world should be unable to reliably distinguish it from reality.

“By interaction we mean you could control an object – rotate it, for example – and it would render in real-time,” McGuigan says.

Photoreal animation

Although existing computers can produce artificial scenes and textures detailed enough to fool the human eye, such scenes typically take several hours to render. The key to passing the Graphics Turing Test, says McGuigan, is to marry that photorealism with software that can render images in real-time – defined as a refresh rate of 30 frames per second.

McGuigan decided to test the ability of one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers – Blue Gene/L at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York – to generate such an artificial world.

Blue Gene/L possesses 18 racks, each with 2000 standard PC processors that work in parallel to provide a huge amount of processing power – it has a speed of 103 teraflops, or 103 trillion “floating point operations” per second. By way of comparison, a calculator uses about 10 floating operations per second.

In particular, McGuigan studied the supercomputer’s ability to mimic the interplay of light with objects – an important component of any virtual world with ambitions to mimic reality.

He found that conventional ray-tracing software could run 822 times faster on the Blue Gene/L than on a standard computer, even though the software was not optimised for the parallel processors of a supercomputer. This allowed it to convincingly mimic natural lighting in real time.

Not there yet

“The nice thing about this ray tracing is that the human eye can see it as natural,” McGuigan says. “There are actually several types of ray-tracing software out there – I chose one that was relatively easy to port to a large number of processors. But others might be faster and even more realistic if they are used in parallel computing.”

Although Blue Gene/L can model the path of light in a virtual world both rapidly and realistically, the speed with which it renders high-resolution images still falls short of that required to pass the Graphics Turing Test.

But supercomputers capable of passing the test may be just years away, thinks McGuigan. “You never know for sure until you can actually do it,” he says. “But a back-of-the-envelope calculation would suggest it should be possible in the next few years, once supercomputers enter the petaflop range – that’s 1000 teraflops.”

But others think that passing the Graphics Turing Test requires more than photorealistic graphics moving in real-time. Reality is not ‘skin deep’ says Paul Richmond at the University of Sheffield, UK. An artificial object can appear real, but unless it moves in a realistic way the eye won’t be fooled. “The real challenge is providing a real-time simulation that includes realistic simulated behaviour,” he says.

Fluid challenge

“I’d like to see a realistic model of the Russian ballet,” says Mark Grundland at the University of Cambridge. “That’s something a photographer would choose as a subject matter, and that’s what we should aim to convey with computers.”

Grundland also points out that the Graphics Turing Test does not specify what is conveyed in the virtual world scene. “If all that is there is a diffusely-reflecting sphere sitting on a diffusely-reflecting surface, then we’ve been able to pass the test for many years now,” he says. “But Turing didn’t mean for his vision to come true so quickly.”

McGuigan agrees that realistic animation poses its own problems. “Modelling that fluidity is difficult,” he says. “You have to make sure that when something jumps in the virtual world it appears heavy.” But he remains optimistic that animation software will be up to the task. “Physical reality is about animation and lighting,” he says. “We’ve done the lighting now – the animation will follow.”

Princes hope Diana inquest verdict will stop conspiracy theorists

Lord Justice Scott Baker had specifically instructed the jurors to reject conspiracy theories that the accident was staged.

Telegraph | Apr 8, 2008

Diana inquest: William and Harry welcome verdict after jury blames paparazzi and Paul

By Gordon Rayner and Andrew Pierce

Princes William and Harry were hoping last night that 10 years of speculation over the death of their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, would finally end after a jury decided that she was unlawfully killed.

After six months of extraordinary claims and counter-claims, the inquest jury decided that the paparazzi who pursued the Princess’s car through Paris and its driver Henri Paul, who had been drinking, were both to blame for the crash because of their “gross negligence”.

Sources close to the Princes said they were “optimistic” that the verdict would draw a line under the countless conspiracy theories about the accident in 1997. “They just want it to end after all this time,” a source said.

In a statement issued by Clarence House last night, the Princes said they agreed with the verdict and thanked witnesses who had given evidence that had “in many cases reawakened their painful and personal memories”.

Trevor Rees, the former bodyguard who survived the crash despite suffering severe injuries, was singled out for praise and the Princes expressed their “profound gratitude” to the medical staff who fought in vain to save their mother’s life.

By a majority of 9-2, the jury at the Royal Courts of Justice in London returned verdicts of unlawful killing on both the Princess and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed – the equivalent of manslaughter in a criminal court.

It means that after two exhaustive investigations, and with an estimated £10 million of taxpayers’ money spent on the unprecedented inquest, the blame has once again been attached to the very people who were accused within minutes of the Princess being declared dead.

But the paparazzi – 10 of whom were arrested after the crash – will not face fresh legal proceedings in France, as a police investigation there cleared them of any criminal responsibility, a decision that was upheld on appeal. Yesterday’s verdicts were rejected by Mohamed Fayed, who maintained that Princess Diana and his son Dodi were “murdered” by MI6 on the orders of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Last night, a poll suggested that almost a third of Britons still agree with him, despite the coroner, Lord Justice Scott Baker, declaring that there was “not a shred of evidence” in support of the conspiracy theories.

The survey for BBC2’s Newsnight showed that although 62 per cent of people believed the crash was simply a tragic accident, 31 per cent thought there was “something suspicious” about it. Only 19 per cent thought the estimated £10 million the inquest cost the taxpayer was money well spent.

Rosa Monckton, one of the Princess’s closest friends and a witness at the inquest, said she hoped the public would now remember Diana for her “extraordinary” work with hospices and children’s charities and not simply the “sordid six weeks” she spent with the Fayed family before her death.

“What I really very much hope is that people will eventually forget [this] and if they do remember then that they also remember that this was only six weeks out of her life.

“I think that has been forgotten because the focus has been on only six weeks of a truly extraordinary life. I think it has been incredibly intrusive. Much of her life has come into the public domain which should never have been there.”

Princess Diana, who was 36, and Dodi Fayed, 41, died after the Mercedes S280 in which they were travelling ran head-on into a pillar in the central reservation of the Alma underpass in Paris, a blackspot.

Following six months of evidence from more than 250 witnesses, the jury decided that the couple were unlawfully killed through a combination of the gross negligence of Henri Paul, who was speeding and was more than three times the French drink-drive limit, and the paparazzi.

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