Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Can we see the arrow of time?


Algorithm can determine, with 80 percent accuracy, whether video is running forward or backward

Einstein's theory of relativity envisions time as a spatial dimension, like height, width, and depth. But unlike those other dimensions, time seems to permit motion in only one direction: forward. This directional asymmetry — the "arrow of time" — is something of a conundrum for theoretical physics.

But is it something we can see?

An international group of computer scientists believes that the answer is yes. At the IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition this month, they'll present a new algorithm that can, with roughly 80 percent accuracy, determine whether a given snippet of video is playing backward or forward.

"If you see that a clock in a movie is going backward, that requires a high-level understanding of how clocks normally move," says William Freeman, a professor of computer science and engineering at MIT and one of the paper's authors. "But we were interested in whether we could tell the direction of time from low-level cues, just watching the way the world behaves."

By identifying subtle but intrinsic characteristics of visual experience, the research could lead to more realistic graphics in gaming and film. But Freeman says that that wasn't the researchers' primary motivation.

"It's kind of like learning what the structure of the visual world is," he says. "To study shape perception, you might invert a photograph to make everything that's black white, and white black, and then check what you can still see and what you can't. Here we're doing a similar thing, by reversing time, then seeing what it takes to detect that change. We're trying to understand the nature of the temporal signal."

Word perfect

Freeman and his collaborators — his students Donglai Wei and YiChang Shih; Lyndsey Pickup and Andrew Zisserman from Oxford University; Changshui Zhang and Zheng Pan of Tsinghua University; and Bernhard Schölkopf of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen, Germany — designed candidate algorithms that approached the problem in three different ways. All three algorithms were trained on a set of short videos that had been identified in advance as running either forward or backward.

The algorithm that performed best begins by dividing a frame of video into a grid of hundreds of thousands of squares; then it divides each of those squares into a smaller, four-by-four grid. For each square in the smaller grid, it determines the direction and distance that clusters of pixels move from one frame to the next.

The algorithm then generates a "dictionary" of roughly 4,000 four-by-four grids, where each square in a grid represents particular directions and degrees of motion. The 4,000-odd "words" in the dictionary are chosen to offer a good approximation of all the grids in the training data. Finally, the algorithm combs through the labeled examples to determine whether particular combinations of "words" tend to indicate forward or backward motion.

Following standard practice in the field, the researchers divided their training data into three sets, sequentially training the algorithm on two of the sets and testing its performance against the third. The algorithm's success rates were 74 percent, 77 percent, and 90 percent.

One vital aspect of the algorithm is that it can identify the specific regions of a frame that it is using to make its judgments. Examining the words that characterize those regions could reveal the types of visual cues that the algorithm is using — and perhaps the types of cues that the human visual system uses as well.

The next-best-performing algorithm was about 70 percent accurate. It was based on the assumption that, in forward-moving video, motion tends to propagate outward rather than contracting inward. In video of a break in pool, for instance, the cue ball is, initially, the only moving object. After it strikes the racked balls, motion begins to appear in a wider and wider radius from the point of contact.

Probable cause

The third algorithm was the least accurate, but it may be the most philosophically interesting. It attempts to offer a statistical definition of the direction of causation.

"There's a research area on causality," Freeman says. "And that's actually really quite important, medically even, because in epidemiology, you can't afford to run the experiment twice, to have people experience this problem and see if they get it and have people do that and see if they don't. But you see things that happen together and you want to figure out: 'Did one cause the other?' There's this whole area of study within statistics on, 'How can you figure out when something did cause something else?' And that relates in an indirect way to this study as well."

Suppose that, in a video, a ball is rolling down a ramp and strikes a bump that briefly launches it into the air. When the video is playing in the forward direction, the sudden change in the ball's trajectory coincides with a visual artifact: the bump. When it's playing in reverse, the ball suddenly leaps for no reason. The researchers were able to model that intuitive distinction as a statistical relationship between a mathematical model of an object's motion and the "noise," or error, in the visual signal.

Unfortunately, the approach works only if the object's motion can be described by a linear equation, and that's rarely the case with motions involving human agency. The algorithm can determine, however, whether the video it's being applied to meets that criterion. And in those cases, its performance is much better.


Written by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office

Abby Abazorius | Eurek Alert!
Further information:

Further reports about: Einstein's theory MIT algorithm depth directional spatial dimensions

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Sharpening the X-ray view of the nanocosm
23.03.2018 | Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics

nachricht Drug or duplicate?
23.03.2018 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Festkörperphysik IAF

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Space observation with radar to secure Germany's space infrastructure

Satellites in near-Earth orbit are at risk due to the steady increase in space debris. But their mission in the areas of telecommunications, navigation or weather forecasts is essential for society. Fraunhofer FHR therefore develops radar-based systems which allow the detection, tracking and cataloging of even the smallest particles of debris. Satellite operators who have access to our data are in a better position to plan evasive maneuvers and prevent destructive collisions. From April, 25-29 2018, Fraunhofer FHR and its partners will exhibit the complementary radar systems TIRA and GESTRA as well as the latest radar techniques for space observation across three stands at the ILA Berlin.

The "traffic situation" in space is very tense: the Earth is currently being orbited not only by countless satellites but also by a large volume of space...

Im Focus: Researchers Discover New Anti-Cancer Protein

An international team of researchers has discovered a new anti-cancer protein. The protein, called LHPP, prevents the uncontrolled proliferation of cancer cells in the liver. The researchers led by Prof. Michael N. Hall from the Biozentrum, University of Basel, report in “Nature” that LHPP can also serve as a biomarker for the diagnosis and prognosis of liver cancer.

The incidence of liver cancer, also known as hepatocellular carcinoma, is steadily increasing. In the last twenty years, the number of cases has almost doubled...

Im Focus: Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1

In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.

Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...

Im Focus: Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.

They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

New solar solutions for sustainable buildings and cities

23.03.2018 | Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

For graphite pellets, just add elbow grease

23.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

Unique communication strategy discovered in stem cell pathway controlling plant growth

23.03.2018 | Agricultural and Forestry Science

Sharpening the X-ray view of the nanocosm

23.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>