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A Port of Falling Turnip to Futhark

Posted on December 4, 2016 by Troels Henriksen

Some time ago, I came across a cool program written by Tran Ma: Falling Turnip. It is a physics imitation that uses cellular automata to implement facsimiles of gravity and (al)chemical interactions between various elements. For example, water plus fire gives steam, lava melts sand and metal (the latter at a slower rate), plants grow into water, etc. I became smitten by the cool demo video, and resolved that so ein Ding muss ich auch haben. Falling Turnip is written in Haskell, and uses the Repa library to work with efficient parallel arrays. The algorithm used (which I will describe shortly) is embarrassingly parallel - essentially a rank-1 stencil at its core - and seemed expressible in Futhark. This program isn’t a benchmark as such (there is no measurable reference), but is just be something fun to play around with. The result is on Github under the name Diving Beet. In contrast to Falling Turnip, which runs solely on CPU(s), Diving Beet runs on any platform supported by OpenCL (although I’ve only run it on GPUs). The frontend is written in Python, using Pygame, via the technique described in an earlier blog post.


The intuition behind the algorithm is pretty simple. The world is a discrete 2D grid of particles of different kinds. Empty space is also treated as a special “empty” particle. Each particle can interact with its neighbours, transforming the neighbour or itself. For example, if a heavy particle is above a lighter particle, we swap them, to simulate gravity. Or if water is above fire, the fire is extinguished and the water turned into steam. These interaction rules can be elegantly expressed as a cellular automaton, as known from the Game of Life, although somewhat more complicated. One problem is how to implement the rules to preserve the physical property of conservation. This is not an issue in Game of Life, because particles may appear or disappear, but in a physical simulation, particles should not disappear for no reason.

The solution is to use a block cellular automaton, where the 2D grid is partitioned into non-overlapping 2x2 cells, called Margolus neighbourhoods that shift along both axes for every time step. Each neighbourhood is then transformed based on the chemical and physical rules that we have defined. In principle, we could assign each neighbourhood to a thread, but the approach chosen by Falling Turnip, and which we replicate in Diving Beet, is to assign a thread for each particle, which then redundantly computes an entire new neighbourhood state, only to pick out just the single new element that the thread is responsible for.

The block cellular automaton has some weaknesses - for example, information propagates only locally (radius one), so a solid mass of particles will fall from the bottom up, with the topmost particles only beginning to drop when there is empty space beneath them. The phenomenon looks like this:

Direct link: falling-sand-2016.12.04.webm

The port from Falling Turnip was quite simple. One interesting complication was the need to generate random numbers. Some interaction rules have a random chance of applying. For example, lava in contact with metal has a small chance of melting the metal, while lava in contact with sand has a large chance of melting the sand. In Falling Turnip, this is implemented by generating a random Repa array. Futhark is a pure language, and thus cannot produce true randomness. However, we can get close enough by running a few iterations of a simple hash function, feeding it a mixture of element index and step count:

-- From
let hash (x: i32): i32 =
  let x = ((x >> 16) ^ x) * 0x45d9f3b
  let x = ((x >> 16) ^ x) * 0x45d9f3b
  let x = ((x >> 16) ^ x) in

let rand_array (seed: i32) (n: i32) (lower: i32, upper: i32): [n]i32 =
  map (\(i: i32): i32  ->
        -- We hash i+n to ensure that a random length-n array is not a
        -- prefix of a random length-(n+m) array.
        (hash (seed ^ i+n)) % (upper-lower+1) + lower) (iota n)

This is good enough for simulations, even if a cryptographer would be horrified.

One other interesting part of the implementation is the main chemical interaction function, which consists of a long chain of simple if-then-else expressions. The ability to have such free-form control flow, even inside of parallel code, was crucial when it came to phrasing the interaction rules in a clear and understandable manner. In contrast, to write this in APL (a very old array language), you would have to express the control flow as data, usually by generating all possible results, then multiplying with either ones or zeroes based on whether each branch was supposed to be taken. There was an attempt to port Falling Turnip to Accelerate, a Haskell eDSL for GPU programming, but it seems to have been aborted. I suspect the need for deeply nested control flow is related, although Accelerate does have some branching constructs. The design space of functional array languages is still fairly unexplored, so I am very curious about exactly which challenges were encountered.


The primary motivation behind this work was of course to have something pretty to show off when I demo Futhark. A video of me playing around with Diving Beet running on an NVIDIA GTX 680 GPU is available here. In the video, I create some spouts to generate water, then create torches beneath them that create fire. When fire and water meets, steam arises, and eventually condenses and turns to water again. I then insert plants (the green stuff), which grows into the water and eventually comes into contact with fire, upon which the it too bursts into fire, sometimes leaving behind a remnant of sand.

On the right-hand side, I create some wedges of metal onto which I drop lava. The lava pools and slowly eats into the metal, while I drop oil on top to create some pretty flames. Near the end, the video starts getting choppy because my screen recorder was unable to keep up and had to write to disk. I create a line of (unreactive) wall, some torches, and then some water to show off the condensation effects more clearly.


I am quite pleased with Diving Beet so far. It was fairly simple to port to Futhark, and the result runs quite well on GPUs. I never knew cellular automatons could be this fun! Yet, the model I ported from Falling Turnip is still pretty simple, and there are some things I would like to improve: