Games are fun. They are also an effective way to learn. As everyone knows, they can rapidly become addictive. These features have been exploited by researchers to advance toward the solution of outstanding scientific problems. An example of gamification at the service of science is Fold It, an unexpected long-lived success story. Invented to crowd-source computational skills from human users, the aim of the game is to find the configuration that makes proteins fold correctly, posing a challenge to the players’ 3D abilities.
Another online scientific game, the BIG Bell Quest, entered the arena on November 30, 2016. Differently from Fold It, which has been running online since 2008, this game could be played for one day only. Moreover, it did not require mastering any complex ability. All that players had to do was to intermittently generate a random stream of 0s and 1s. The nominal goal of the game — beating the video game evil, who would try to outguess the player’s random sequence — was more an excuse for becoming part of an ongoing worldwide quantum experiment. Link
The video game was indeed just the connection between scientists and the collection of this binary data generated by the players worldwide. The input was fed in realtime to a web server and distributed to a network of thirteen connected laboratories. Using this steady amount of information (more than 100 bits per seconds), was instrumental to operate different experiments that then used the data to perform measurements on different types of quantum systems: photons, single atoms, atomic ensembles and superconducting devices.
The nature of each experiment differed in the details depending on the laboratory, but it generally entailed testing various versions of a probability test invented by the theoretical physicist John Bell over 50 years ago. The aim of this test is nothing less than probing what is the nature of the reality we live in. The power of Bell’s intuition is that such a metaphysical concept could be tested quantitatively. The essence of the Bell test is measuring the correlations among the observations made by two parties. Quantum theory predicts that if quantum correlations are engineered between the ‘data’ accessed by the two parties, this violates one of the intuitive properties of nature, local realism.
Interestingly, the purpose of the huge, distributed human-powered binary data generator engineered through the Big Bell test was not that of increasing the quality of random numbers fed in real-time to quantum labs across the world, but more of a philosophical nature. Link
Other random number generators are better than humans at providing random streams of data. Indeed, by looking into patterns in the fundamentally biased human approach, the video game would challenge the players to improve the unpredictability of their generated data, trying to outguess it with techniques involving the use of a deep neural network. However, improving the degree of randomness was not crucial for the experiment, but more a way to further engage the players as moreover, the data was further filtered before being fed to the experiments.
In the end, the ‘Bellsters’ players purpose was neither that of providing additional computational power nor of providing better random sequences, but simply that of inserting free will into the undergoing quantum experiments testing the nature of reality. As each player was independently feeding such information, this has allowed to close a free-will loophole in the Bell experiment. Link
The Big Bell test, whose results were reported in Nature in May 2018,represents an unprecedented mark of coordination in the quantum tech community, and an impressive public-engagement effort (involving over 100’000 players). Yet this was not the first time that video games and quantum physics crossed roads. In Finland for example, there is an annual jamming session that aims at developing new video games inspired by quantum mechanics, possibly benefitting quantum scientists involved in the creative process. Link
Intriguingly, Bell’s experiment, which provides a concrete way to detect the occurrence of entanglement, can be thought of as a game itself. The rules of quantum mechanics allow two players to outperform their best score otherwise obtained if the quantum information assumptions on reality were true.
Indeed the field of quantum information and cryptography has been so much influenced by the idea of competing players in a game, e.g., as that of intercepting a private message, or conversely protecting the data shared, that Alice, Bob, and Eve are the three fictional characters standardly used to explain the working principles of new protocols securing or hacking quantum information.
Inspired by recent advancements in quantum computing and quantum simulation, impromptu quantum hackaton sessions are being organized, in which, just like for the non-quantum case, participants team-up by self-assembly to develop code. While the intrinsic hurdles of quantum computing make it extremely hard to find new algorithms or applications, if not climbing a steep learning curve in a day for quantum newbies, these are attractive interactive events to engaging a larger base of developers on different aspects of quantum software. Link
Several developers have been designing games that run on quantum computers (or simulators) in which the laws of quantum mechanics are used. Link
There is even a more ludic form of ‘quantum games’, which are simply inspired by quantum mechanics in their rules: and while you might have seen Stephen Hawking mastering quantum chess, IBM has actually contributed to release a real game, Entanglion, the first open-source board game of this kind. Link1 Link2 Link3
Some physicists, as John Preskill from Caltech, even believe that by playing with the rules set by quantum mechanics, new generations of players will find it more intuitive to discover and explore the quantum world. Link
If you play Angry Birds, you might want to try quantum kittens. Link
This is a collection of my articles on quantum technology, part of my Quantum Tech Newsletter. You can read the original posts also on Medium:
- Gravitational Quantum Sensors
- Quantum Advantage
- Analog Computing
- Quantum Internet
- Quantum Games
- Open-Source Quantum Tech
- Quantum Machine Learning
- Space Quantum Communication
© Nathan Shammah — 2017 and beyond.