It's a new, incredibly powerful tool for quantum physics. And it's tucked away inside the brains of video gamers.
A team of Danish physicists led by Jens Jakob Sørensen at Aarhus University in Denmark is using the intuition and grit of video gamers to solve a suite of complex quantum physics problems beyond the ability of even our best supercomputers.
The physicists are harnessing gamer brains using their new video game, Quantum Moves. In the game, players tinker with speed-trial puzzles that use the bizarre rules of quantum physics, where particles can act as probabilistic waves. You Quantum Moves right now on your computer or mobile device.
"Players solve a very complex problem by creating simple strategies. Where a computer goes through all available options, players automatically search for a solution that intuitively feels right," says Jacob Sherson, a physicist with the team. "In a sense we are downloading our common intuition."
After watching 10,000 players plug away at more than half a million puzzles, Sørensen's team devised an algorithm that that tackled a set of quantum physics problems their game mimics. Sørensen's team hopes this intuition-powered algorithm will help them develop a new type of computer, the quantum computer. They report their findings today in the journal Nature.
When you download Quantum Moves you'll be able to play BringHomeWater, the mini-game that fueled today's new breakthrough algorithm. It's a bit of a strange beast. The game asks you to bend and warp a flat line with your cursor, allowing you to transfer a choppy liquid ("water") that destabilizes and spills if you move it too fast. Your job is to carry the liquid across the screen to a deposit point, but without moving it so quickly that you make a mess. Although the liquid hardly acts like actual water (it responds to odd destabilization physics beyond simple gravity), you'll find that after a few levels you unwittingly and intuitively begin to understand how best to navigate the mini-game.
That moment, when the game's rules "click" in your mind, is much harder-earned than it might feel. According to Sabrina Maniscalco—a quantum physicist at the University of Turku, Finland, who was not involved with developing Quantum Moves or today's paper—the average U.S. citizen has played about 10,000 hours of video games by the age of 21. The software your brain uses to master BringHomeWater has been fine-tuned over those many focused hours, and that's the expertise scientists want to harness.
"Gamers are used to experimenting with possibilities that go beyond the classical laws of physics. Perhaps this ability to think outside the box allows them to make the creative leap necessary to tackle quantum problems," Maniscalco writes in an essay published alongside today's Nature paper. She notes that Sørensen's team is not the first to use computer games to hack away at complex research problems. Previously, games like and helped biologists delve into the incomprehensibly complex worlds of protein folding and brain-cell connections. But Quantum Moves is the first to do this for quantum physicists.
What exactly are gamers doing in Quantum Moves that supercomputers cannot? Sørensen and his colleagues were looking for a specific set of directions for a prototype of a quantum computer that works by moving around single atoms. (Quick refresher: quantum computers would use the strange physics that dominates the smallest scales of the universe, where chunks of matter and information can be suspended into an ephemeral cloud of probabilities.)
To drastically oversimplify: Sørensen's proposed computer needs to know how to move around these suspended clouds of atoms inside crystals made of light. The atoms are moved by highly focused laser beams, but how to efficiently carry them from point A to point B is no obvious task. The atoms can only be moved in certain ways with utmost speed, but in the strange world of quantum physics, moving too fast can actually destabilize your atoms and ruin the whole process. Starting to sound familiar? This is what's the game designers mimicked in BringHomeWater and its delicate movements.
When Sørensen compared the atom-moving algorithm developed from the solutions gamers came up with for Quantum Moves solutions against approaches developed solely by number-crunching supercomputers, they found that the addition of human intuition created solutions that were far more efficient than what the computers suggested.
"We behave intuitively when we need to solve an unknown problem, whereas for a computer this is incomprehensible. A computer churns through enormous amounts of information, but we can choose not to do this by basing our decision on experience or intuition," says Sherson. "Through our analysis we found that there are common features in the players' solutions, providing a glimpse into the shared intuition of humanity."