Matrix-style virtual worlds ‘a few years away’

By | April 7, 2008

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. – newsci

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