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Intelligent Machines

Europe’s Latest Billion-Dollar Startup Wants to Build the Matrix. Really.

Originally established to build ultra-realistic video games, the firm now plans to simulate the world in silico.

A London-based software startup called Improbable is living up to its name.

The firm announced today that it had secured $502 million of investment from Japanese tech conglomerate Softbank, valuing it at over $1 billion. As the BBC notes, it’s one of the largest investments ever made in an early-stage startup in Europe, where venture capital cash flows a little less freely than it does in Silicon Valley.

So why the fuss? As we’ve reported in the past, Improbable was originally founded by two computer science graduates of the University of Cambridge who wanted to build ultra-detailed virtual worlds for video games (it was also one of our 50 Smartest Companies of 2016). But the pair soon realized that the same technology could be put to use building tools that could simulate the world around us—even entire cities.

In theory it’s easy to model, for instance, a street with some cars, buses, and pedestrians in order to see how they all interact. But scaling that up in order to understand how London’s entire population might get around in the face of a public transit outage would be way too complex for most systems to handle.

And yet that’s just the kind of problem that Improbable thinks it can simulate. Using a technique that splits up a massive simulation and farms it out to thousands of public servers, it has already been able to simulate entire cities. The company claims to have produced the most complex urban models in the world.

In fact, Improbable is ratcheting up its own expectations of what it might be able to achieve as a result. As this excellent feature about the company by Wired UK reports, its CEO, Herman Narula, says that his firm now “basically want[s] to build the Matrix.”

It’s a bit of hyperbole, of course. But the company does plan to create such realistic simulations of the real world that military officials, city leaders, or anyone else dealing with fiendishly complex systems with millions of moving parts could play out the impact of their actions with unprecedented accuracy. Clearly at least one deep-pocketed investor believes it can deliver on that vision.

(Read more: Bloomberg, Wired UK, “Highly Detailed City Simulation Is the New Autonomous Taxi Dispatch”)

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