Quantum VFX computing



Ever thought about how far the computing of visuals has come since we donned the black cape behind the film camera? In the early 80s, I sat in the cold, changing a roll of 5247 Kodak film in an ARRI35BL mag outside a set, thinking filmmaking would never be any different.  Then computers came along.  Look at us now.

The use of computers has changed the art of visual storytelling forever.  Compositing, editing, animation and then rendering has accelerated and brought depth and reality to our art, further beyond what any of us could have believed possible.  Very soon there will be another revolution upon us.   But when?

Quantum computing taps into the ‘very strangeness’ of quantum mechanics. This is a branch of physics dealing with behaviors of sub-atomic particles. By reaching beyond those limits of Newtonian physics, therein lies exponential leaps in computing power.

Quantum bits are used in this new computing paradigm. While conventional computing uses the signalling of the regular 1 or 0 to depict charged or uncharged, on or off, quantum bits, or qubits are subatomic particles that can, by virtue of their subatomic size, display themselves in a massively wide variety of ways, thus allowing a vastly quicker computational result.  Incredibly complex calculations can be run ultimately simultaneously.  However, these qubits need to be cooled to near absolute zero to behave as efficiently as possible. That’s minus 270-degrees folks.

A dilution refrigeration unit used to supercool qubits so that they can function reliably © Graham Carlow/IBM

In an article in the Financial Times recently, Richard Waters and John Thornhill describe how Google has been leading the charge in this, and Intel and Microsoft have made some strides as well. IBM is, of course, one of the other leaders and their creation of 50-qubit quantum computer at the Thomas Watson Research Centre in Yorktown Heights is well underway.
Google has the Cloud Platform, allowing companies to use render farms online for crunching through frames in many of the visual projects available to watch this year. Milk VFX in London used the service and rendered 77 million 4K frames in under three months for high-end cinema gems like the Oscar-winning Ex-Machina.  But it was not quantum computing.  Lucasfilm uses their own huge render farm to generate those incredible frames for their Star Wars franchise.  Imagine what could be possible with quantum computing.
Meanwhile in the real world, the real benefits of quantum computing are undoubtedly in medical research, autonomous vehicles, and other scientific projects like interplanetary research in astronomy, blockchain and biosecurity, there’s a part of me that wonders what kind of gains good old story-telling and visual effects might have to benefit from this new-found computing powerhouse.
Looking at the latest strides being taken by various computing companies, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit system broke through the 100-petaflop barrier only two months ago. What is a petaflop? It’s 100 teraflops, one million gigaflops. Breaking it down even further, it’s a unit of computing speed equal to one thousand million, million floating-point operations per second. The actual unit of a ‘flop’ is the name for a ‘floating point operation per second’.
Using an immense number of state-of-the-art GPUs, the power run these machines is a concern, so a lot of the present research is about increasing the efficiency of the processors. What ‘brain-power’ would this research be using? Well, the quantum computing power of course.

A 7-qubit device that scientists used to simulate complex molecular reactions in 2017, showing how it could revolutionize materials science © Kandala et al/IBM

Are we at the point where we can justify a leap towards using quantum computers in the visual depiction of special effects?  In twenty years, will we be inside the movie, in 3D at 120 fps, changing the story with our thoughts?  Perhaps, but is it worth it?  I might add that in 1943, Thomas Watson, the President of IBM said there was a world market for about five computers. As long as efficiency can be maximized, why stop advancing further out into the future.

Related links:

Financial Times article.

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