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K. to wonder how we tell the difference between time running forward and backward in movies After all we only ever observe time running forward in the real world—a concept called time’s arrow How do we pick up on it when a movie has put time arrow’s in reverse And might she be able to teach computers to make the same observation To find out she and her collaborators broke down 180 YouTube videos into square patches of a few hundred pixels which they further divided into four-by-four grids Combining standard techniques for discovering objects in still photographs with motion detection algorithms the researchers identified 4000 typical patterns of motion or “flow words” across a grid’s 16 cells The gentle downward drifting of snowflakes for example would be one flow word From those patterns the team created flow word descriptions of each video along with three other versions—a time-reversed version a mirror-image version and a mirror-image and time-reversed version Then they made a computer program watch 120 of these clips training it to identify which flow words best revealed whether a video ran forward or backward When they tested their program on the remaining 60 videos the trained computers could correctly determine whether a video ran forward or backward 80% of the time the team reported this week at the IEEE Computer Society Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition in Columbus Ohio A closer analysis found that flow words associated with divergence (water splashing outward as someone dives into a pool) or dissipation (a steam train’s exhaust spreading out in air) were especially good indicators of the direction in which time was moving In principle the work could provide clues about how humans as well as computers perceive time passing Pickup says and reverse-time videos could play a role akin to the optical illusions and reverse-color photographs psychologists have used to study visual perception in the past Seeing time running backward is “really captivating” and continuing the research might help her team figure out why she says Shai Avidan an associate professor of engineering at Tel Aviv University in Israel who wasn’t involved with the work says that the team is the first to ask “Can we analyze and understand” what attributes distinguish backward from forward video It’s an intriguing if largely academic question Still practical applications may be possible Avidan compares the flow words approach to earlier work on identifying different kinds of texture in still images Though studying image textures was considered “superficial” 15 years ago he says the tools developed to do so have since proved essential for engineers working on how to reduce noise in low-light digital photographs and other images By identifying the subtle features that indicate time’s arrow and separating those from noise flow words could play a similar role for improving otherwise fuzzy low-light video Avidan ventures Regardless of any possible applications “we just thought it was a great problem” says Pickup’s co-author and computer scientist William Freeman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge Pickup agrees: Teaching computers to see the arrow of time combines computer science physics and human perception to get at the heart of the question “How do we understand the visual world”Play the video above Unlike most ant species, ? though, sadness, a clue for predicting structure. The results have been powerful. but his impact persists. trout.

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