We know that Machine Learning is an extremely powerful tool for tackling complex

problems which we don’t know how to solve by conventional means. Problems like

image classification can be solved effectively by Machine Learning because at

the end of the day, gathering data for that kind of task is much easier than

coming up with hand-written rules for such a complex and difficult problem.

But what about problems we already know how to solve? Is there any reason to

apply Machine Learning to problems we already have working solutions for? Tasks

such as physics simulation, where the rules and equations governing the task are

already well known and explored? Well it turns out in many cases there are good

reasons to do this – reasons related to many interesting concepts

in computer science such as the trade-off between memorization and computation,

and a concept called Kolmogorov complexity.

The way to start thinking about it is this: although it might not be

obvious, for any phenomenon, problem, or mathematical function we

are interested in (provided there is a way to find an answer in the first place) there is always a way to perform a trade-off between how

much computation we perform and how much memory we use.

For example, let’s consider a very simple Python program which computes `sin(x)`

:

```
def f(x):
return np.sin(x)
```

This is what we would call a “direct” computation of the `sin`

function, but let

us imagine for a moment than the `sin`

function was a very expensive operation

to compute. In this case we might want to take a different approach. We could,

for example, pre-compute values of `sin(x)`

for many different values of `x`

and store them in a big lookup table like follows:

```
def f(x):
return {
0.00: 0.00,
0.34: 0.34,
0.69: 0.64,
1.04: 0.86,
1.39: 0.98,
... : ...,
1.74: 0.98,
2.09: 0.86,
2.44: 0.64,
2.79: 0.34,
3.14: 0.00,
}[x]
```

Now, instead of computing the value of `sin(x)`

“directly” by some expensive operation, we

can instead “compute” the value of `sin(x)`

almost instantly by simply looking up the

value of our input in the lookup table. The downside is this – now we need to pre-compute the

`sin`

function hundreds of thousands of times and keep all of those pre-computed values of

`sin(x)`

in memory. We have traded more memory usage (and pre-computation) in exchange for

less computation. And, although the lookup table may become

unfathomably huge, and the pre-computation time insanely large for complicated

functions, in theory this very same trick is applicable to any function we are

interested in – not just very simple functions like `sin`

– functions even

as complicated as a physics simulations.

We can think about these two programs like two extreme data points – two different ways to compute the same function with vastly different uses of computation and memory. If we were to measure their respective memory usage and computation time and plot them on a graph it would probably look something like this:

The natural question to ask next is if there are any generic programs

which lie somewhere in-between these two extremes. Programs which trade off memory

and computation in a way that is agnostic to the underlying function they are computing. In fact

there are! We can, for example, write a generic program which caches computations

to avoid re-computation. This saves some performance if we get an input we’ve

already computed the output for at the cost of some additional memory usage:

```
cache = {}
def f(x):
if x in cache:
return cache[x]
else:
y = np.sin(x)
cache[x] = y
return y
```

Like before, we’ve found a “generic” way to trade-off memory for computation which

can work (in theory at least) no matter what function we are interested in

computing.

There are also programs that simply *approximate* the function we are

interested in computing by using a bit more memory in exchange for faster and

less accurate computation. Here is one such approximation for the `sin`

function:

```
def f(x):
x = x % (2*np.pi)
return (
(16*x*(np.pi - x)) /
(5*np.pi*np.pi - 4*x*(np.pi - x)))
```

It might not be clear at first where the additional memory usage in these

functions is, but in this case the constants such as `2`

, `16`

, `5`

, `4`

, and

`pi`

are all additional “special” values, just like those in the lookup table –

these are the “memory”. And while this specific approximation is limited to `sin`

, it isn’t that

difficult to find a generic version of this program which looks similar but

can approximate any function simply by finding different appropriate constant values.

Given these two additions, another question to ask is this: Is there a

generic kind of program like the ones we’ve presented so far which lies in the

sweet spot at the bottom left of the graph – not using too much memory – not

using too much computation – providing the best of both worlds?

One direction we can look towards is Machine Learning – because if we can

evaluate the function we are interested in approximating offline we can gather

training data and then train a generic Machine Learning algorithm to

approximate the function. In Machine Learning we have a whole class of

different generic algorithms we could add to our graph to see their performance.

As an example, let’s take a look at Neural Networks – if we examine the

computational properties of Neural Networks, we can probably guess where they

might lie on this graph without even having to try them.

First of all, let’s look at the computation time. Now, the computation time of

a Neural Network is basically proportional to the number of weights it has, and

the number of weights it has also dictates the memory usage. So computation

time and memory usage are coupled in a standard Neural Network – visually, Neural Networks

always lie somewhere on the diagonal of the graph.

And what dictates how many weights we need in a Neural Network? Well roughly,

this is dictated by two things – how accurate we want the Neural Network to be,

and how complex the function we are fitting is. If we look at all these

properties together we see something like this

```
Computation Time is proportional to Memory Usage
Memory Usage is proportional to Accuracy
Accuracy is inversely proportional to Complexity
```

So, how far up the diagonal our Neural Network will be is governed ultimately by the

accuracy we want, and the complexity of the function we are interested in fitting. This is both good and bad news – good

because if the function we want to approximate isn’t complex then we can be

confident we will hit the sweet spot – low computation time and low memory

usage – and bad because if the function we want to approximate *is* complex we

get the worst of both worlds – expensive evaluation and lots of memory usage.

But what exactly do we mean by the complexity of a function? If we could get a

good intuitive understanding of this we would be able to predict more accurately

when Neural Networks might hit the sweet spot. This is where

Kolmogorov Complexity comes in – an intuitive measure for deciding how complex

a function is.

Put simply, the Kolmogorov Complexity of some function is the length of the

shortest possible program which can produce exactly the same outputs as the

function for all given inputs. In addition, according to the rules of

Kolmogorov Complexity, programs are not allowed to open any files or communicate

with the outside world in any way – all their data must be stored in the source code.

For example, the function which takes no inputs and outputs the string:

`abababababababababababababababab`

can be produced pretty simply by the small program:

```
def f():
print "ab" * 16
```

Which implies this function which outputs `ab`

repeated is not a particularly complex

function. On the other hand, the function which takes no inputs and produces the string:

`4c1j5b2p0cv4w1x8rx2y39umgw5q85s7`

is comparatively more complex – it basically requires a program to print out

the string verbatim:

```
def f():
print "4c1j5b2p0cv4w1x8rx2y39umgw5q85s7"
```

Storing this string makes the program much longer, which means the function which produces it

must be complex.

There is already something interesting to note here – the first program computes

something (using the `*`

operator), while the second simply memorizes

the string. This immediately gives us a good intuition: functions which need to do memorization are often

more complex.

And Kolmogorov Complexity is not limited to functions which output strings. We can use

exactly the same analysis for functions which produce images, physics

simulations, or anything else. Consider the following images, do we think

either of them are produced from complex functions?

Well not really – probably there is a simple program which can produce either

image – it looks like they took simple rules to generate. What about these images?

Now these are much more complex. It seems difficult to think of a program which

could produce either of these images without storing lots of raw data inside the

program. Here we gain another intuition: that natural data is often complex and

requires memorization.

What about these two images?

Aha – this time it’s a trick question. The first image is of course of a fractal –

an image which appears complex but actually as we well know has a simple program

that can be used to generate it.

The second is random noise – and can have two answers. If this noise is from a

pseudo random number generator or we just want to produce noise but not this *exact* noise,

it is technically *not* complex as we know that pseudo

random number generators are relatively simple programs – however – if this is

true random noise and we want to reproduce it exactly, then it is maximally complex – there is no possible program

which could generate it without simply storing it verbatim and writing it out. This

gives us another intuition: knowing the complexity of a function simply by

observing its input and output is extremely difficult.

So what about something like a physics simulation? Forget about the edge cases

and trick questions for now and imagine you had to write a program to produce

the movement of the cloth in this video given the movement of the ball.

Is this complex?

Well…relative to our other examples certainly, but perhaps it isn’t as complex as you might think at first – I think it would probably be possible to guess

the motion of the cloth fairly accurately simply by knowing the phase of the movement of the

ball. My gut feeling is that if you do something clever there may well be a simple program which could

take just that one parameter and get a good guess at the state of the cloth in

response.

What about this one?

Okay, now this is complex – there are all kind of tiny folds and chaotic

movements going on and it would seem like you would need to write a massive

complex program to produce this exact behavior.

But is there a way we can actually compute the complexity directly rather than

just feeling around with our intuition? It has been shown that this is impossible in the general case –

but we *can* compute an approximation of it with an algorithm called

Principal Component Analysis (PCA). When you apply PCA to some data, what you get back is a guess at how many numbers might be required to express it for a given error threshold – a guess at how *compressible* the data is – and a simple algorithm for how to decompress it.

Let’s try applying this to some data gathered from a physics simulation.

Interestingly, when applied to physical simulation data, PCA has a special

behavior – in addition to telling us the “complexity” of the simulation it also

extracts the major axes of deformation for the physically simulated object we are interested in:

We can measure the complexity by looking at how many of these axes of

deformation are required to reconstruct the original motion. For a simple motion

like our sheet of cloth swinging back and forth we might only need one or two

axes to almost entirely reconstruct the motion, while for our cloth with

complex fine folds we could expect to need hundreds or even thousands.

Below you can see a comparison of what happens if we choose different numbers of axes to

reconstruct the movement of a cape attached to a character. With fewer axes you

get less detail – the complexity is effectively reduced. In this case, although

the original cloth has around 3000 vertices we need just 256 axes (sometimes also called *Basis*) to represent

the state of the cloth without too much loss in quality, detail, and

complexity.

This tells us something interesting – that physics simulations are almost

always less complex than they may first appear (there is a good reason for this too, based on the theory of adding constraints). It tells us that

if we try to approximate a fairly simple physics simulation with a Neural

Network, we have a good chance of hitting the sweet spot between computation and

memorization!

So let’s try it – lets set up a bunch of simulations and run them for a long

time to extract lots of different simulation data for some different situations

we are interested in.

As you’d expect, extracting this kind of data can take a long time – up to

several days – but once complete we have a massive database of physics

simulation data we can learn from.

The next step is to apply PCA. At this point we can decide exactly how many

axes we want to use by examining how well we can reproduce the original

data. Fewer axes means fewer details, but also makes it much more likely we

can hit the sweet spot in regards to performance.

Once we’ve applied PCA, for each frame we have N numbers, where N is the number

of axes, each number representing the deformation on that axis. Using

this representation, we want to train a Neural Network to predict the PCA

values for the next frame, given the frame before, and the positions of all

the different external objects such as the ball or whatever else.

In fact, we can ask the network to predict a *correction* to an

extrapolation of the current deformation using the rate of change of the current deformation –

in this case we get a more accurate prediction because most of the time objects

change very consistently between frames.

Once trained, we can drop in our Neural Network as a replacement to the simulation function. And, while the normal physics simulation takes as input

the full state of the cloth including all of the thousands of vertex positions –

our network only takes as input just the N numbers representing the deformation

on the PCA axes – and outputs the same. In this way it does vastly less computation and produces a much more efficient simulation.

And since the deformations computed from the PCA have a specific mathematical

property (they are orthonormal), this exact formulation has a nice physical interpretation too –

that under some basic assumptions we can say the Neural Network is actually being used to predict the

*forces* applied in the simulation in a highly efficient way. Forces such as those

introduced by collisions and internal tension. You can see the paper for more details.

Here you can see it applied to two small examples – a simple ball and sheet and a cloth pinned at four corners. At face value you would

never know that behind the scenes no physics simulation is actually being

performed – all of it is being approximated by a neural network!

We can also include as input to the network other things – such as the wind

direction and speed. Here we can use it to control a flag:

What about a more complicated example? In this case the network gets as input

the joint positions of the blue character and learns to predict the movement

of the cape. It learns to do everything itself, including all of the collisions and other

interaction dynamics. Here we can compare it to the ground truth simulation – we can see

that while some details are lost, overall it does a pretty good job of

approximating the result.

Here we plug it into an interactive system to see how it behaves in a more

realistic environment.

It isn’t just cloth, we can also approximate the deformation of soft bodies

like this deformable bunny or this dragon. In these cases we get even more

massive performance gains simply because simulating deformable objects is

even more expensive.

If we adjust the number of PCA axes we use, we can also trade runtime

performance and memory in exchange for quality (or we could say complexity in this case).

Naturally, our network only performs well on the kind of situations it’s

trained on. If we move the objects faster or further than what we had in the

training data we don’t get realistic behavior from the simulation:

Similarly, if we try to train it on situations which are too complex it simply

takes too long to even get all the training data we need to cover every possible

different situation we might be interested in covering. Additionally, if the complexity gets too high we hit the worst of

both worlds – a massive neural network which requires huge amounts of memory

and takes a long time to compute.

But as long as we remain in the range of the training data and the complexity

is relatively low, we really can hit the sweet spot.

Performance goes between 35us per frame, and 350us per frame – which is roughly

within the budget for a character or other special entity in a AAA game

production – and about 300 to 5000 times faster than the original simulation we

used to get the training data. Having such fast performance also allows us to

simulate a lot of things at once! Including things that would be totally impossible with normal simulation:

So Neural Networks are not just good for things we don’t know how to solve,

they can provide massive performance gains on problems we already know how

to solve. In fact, we can use the concept of Kolmogorov Complexity

to get a kind of intuition (and even use PCA for a simple kind of measure) for how well we expect Neural Networks to

perform on a task.

But, thinking toward the future, there is still something awkward about all of this – which is that we

didn’t actually do what we originally wanted to do – which was to find a way to easily trade computation for memory usage and vice versa – in standard Neural Networks the two are coupled and computation time is always proportional to the number of

weights. Yes, we can hit the sweet spot if the complexity is low, but what if it is high? Wouldn’t it be nice to (for example) allow for a bit more memory usage to get computation time within a certain budget?

Wouldn’t it be great in game development if we could adapt Neural Networks in a

way which allowed us to set our budgets for computation and memory and have the

result presented to us in whatever accuracy was possible. Recent research has shown some promising results, but it looks like we will have to wait a bit longer before that dream becomes a reality…

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