Quantum computers — theoretical machines which can process certain large and difficult problems exponentially faster than classical computers — have been a mainstay of science fiction for decades. But actually building one has proven incredibly challenging.
A group of researchers at Aarhus University believes the secret to creating a quantum computer lies in understanding human cognition. So, they have built computer games to study us, first.
There are ways in which modern computers vastly outstrip our cognitive capacity — storing and regurgitating facts, for instance. But while most humans will struggle to memorize a list of a hundred names, we can learn recognise a hundred faces — a much more complex task — with ease. For decades, neuroscientists and engineers have dreamed of designing a computer that performs tasks such as facial or hand-writing recognition efficiently.
To understand how humans solve complex problems, Jacob Sherson and his colleagues created Quantum Moves, a simple problem-solving game in which a player searches for the best way to move atoms around on the screen. Ultimately, the researchers hope their freely accessible game — which has already been played over 400 thousand times — will offer insights into how our brains easily perform tasks that stump computers.
To build a quantum computer, researchers are first mapping human thoughts. Image: Shutterstock.
"The players showed us that there's an unexploited capacity for ingenuity in the human brain. We see solutions that a computer would never have allowed, and which optimise the processes," said Sherson in a press release.
The game has already produced some interesting findings. For one, while your loved ones may scold you for your lack of attentiveness, when it comes to problem solving, the ability to disregard irrelevant information is a blessing. Computers are unable to ignore even the most obscure details, and waste precious energy trying to incorporate them into the solution.
"We presumably manage to separate whatever is of no importance in relation to a given problem," Sherson said. "We hope to transfer this to the work with quantum computers, where the behaviour of atoms is the crucial factor."
So, while the actual business of building a quantum computer may out of reach for those of us lacking a Ph.D. in physics, now at least there's a way for us plebeians to contribute to the effort, by doing what we do best — playing games.
Top image via Shutterstock