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Artificial intelligence can now simulate tree growth and shape

Researchers have made a significant leap in artificial intelligence (AI) by successfully simulating the growth and form of trees. This achievement, a blend of technology and nature, marks a pivotal moment in digital modeling.

The team comprised scientists from Purdue University’s Department of Computer Science and Institute for Digital Forestry, along with Sören Pirk from Kiel University in Germany.

DNA-inspired AI: Modeling tree growth

At the heart of their endeavor is the DNA molecule, a master blueprint for both tree shape and environmental response.

Bedrich Benes, a professor at Purdue, and his team have drawn inspiration from this natural phenomenon to craft innovative AI models.

“The AI models learn from large data sets to mimic the intrinsic discovered behavior,” Benes said.

These models are remarkable for their efficiency, distilling the complex information needed to replicate tree forms into a neural model barely a megabyte in size.

“It’s complex behavior, but it has been compressed to rather a small amount of data,” Benes explained.

Real-world applications

The practical applications of these AI models are profound. After a period of rigorous training, they are capable of encoding the local development of trees, allowing for the generation of intricate tree models with detailed geometries that span several gigabytes.

This technology stands to revolutionize fields ranging from architecture and urban planning to gaming and entertainment, offering a new level of realism in digital environments.

Benes, reflecting on a decade of working with AI models, shared his anticipation of these advancements significantly enhancing digital tree models.

Yet, the compact size of these models, encapsulating complex behaviors in a small data footprint, was an unexpected and pleasant surprise.

The research, detailed in two papers published in the prestigious ACM Transactions on Graphics and IEEE Transactions on Visualizations and Computer Graphics, represents a collaborative effort.

Purdue graduate students Jae Joong Lee, Bosheng Li, and Xiaochen Zhou, alongside Songlin Fei, a key figure in remote sensing and director of the Institute for Digital Forestry, contributed significantly to this breakthrough.

AI machine learning and tree growth

The team employed deep learning, an advanced branch of AI, to develop growth models for various tree species like maple, oak, pine, and walnut, both with and without leaves.

This method involves training AI models through interconnected neural networks, an approach that seeks to replicate aspects of human brain functionality.

Despite AI’s increasing prevalence in various fields, its success in modeling 3D geometries, particularly those related to nature, has been limited.

According to Benes, generating 3D models of vegetation has been a long-standing challenge in computer graphics.

“Although AI has become seemingly pervasive, thus far it has mostly proved highly successful in modeling 3D geometries unrelated to nature,” Benes said.

Traditional approaches to tree-growth simulations, often led by experts with biological expertise, have focused on how trees interact with their environment.

These interactions are governed by both genetic factors, like branching angles, and environmental influences, resulting in diverse tree shapes even within the same species.

Future of tree growth and artificial intelligence

In their quest to untangle this complexity, the researchers turned to AI. By feeding thousands of trees’ worth of data into their models, they aimed to let AI learn and distill the essence of tree form.

This approach marks a departure from traditional model building, which is based on human-generated hypotheses and observations.

“Decoupling the tree’s intrinsic properties and its environmental response is extremely complicated,” Benes said. “We looked at thousands of trees, and we thought, ‘Hey, let AI learn it.’ And maybe we can then learn the essence of tree form with AI.”

Instead, the AI generalizes behavior from a vast input dataset, with subsequent validation to ensure the models mirror the observed behaviors.

One current limitation is the lack of training data that accurately describes real-world 3D tree geometry. The team’s AI models simulate tree developmental algorithms rather than directly mimicking nature.

Benes envisions a future where capturing a tree’s image with a cellphone could generate its 3D geometry within a computer, offering new perspectives and interaction possibilities.

“In our methods, we needed to generate the data. So our AI models are not simulating nature. They are simulating tree developmental algorithms,” Benes said. He aspires to reconstruct 3D geometry data from real trees inside a computer.

“You take your cellphone, take a picture of a tree, and you get a 3D geometry inside the computer. It could be rotated. Zoom in. Zoom out,” he said. “This is next. And it’s perfectly aligned with the mission of digital forestry.”

Digital forestry and the future

This vision aligns seamlessly with the mission of digital forestry, heralding a new era of technological and natural integration.

In summary, the pioneering work of these scientists represents a significant milestone in the intersection of artificial intelligence and natural modeling.

Their innovative approach, harnessing the power of AI to simulate the growth and form of trees, demonstrates the potential of technology to replicate complex natural phenomena, while opening a realm of possibilities for practical applications in diverse fields.

From enhancing the realism in digital entertainment to aiding urban planning and architectural designs, this breakthrough sets the stage for future advancements where technology and nature coalesce, offering new insights and capabilities that were once beyond our reach.

The full study was published in the journal ACM Transactions on Graphics.


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