Every week people all around the world spend 3 billion hours playing games. Games are entering almost all areas of our daily life and have the potential to become an invaluable resource for science.
Citizen science games have already proved successful in advancing scientific endeavours such as protein folding and neuron mapping. However, this approach had not previously been applied to quantum physics, and a recent study has now shown that gamers are solving a class of problems in quantum physics that cannot be easily solved by algorithms alone.
Quantum physics holds the promise of immense technological advances in areas ranging from computing to high-precision measurements. However, the problems that need to be solved to get there are so complex that even the most powerful supercomputers struggle with them.
"By turning science into games, anyone can do research in quantum physics," explains developer Jacob Sherson.
"We have shown that games break down the barriers between quantum physicists and people of all backgrounds, providing phenomenal insights into state-of-the-art research. Our project combines the best of both worlds and helps challenge established paradigms in computational research."
Operations associated with quantum computing require very short execution times to ensure functionality. However, if these times are too short, the precision of the operation can be compromised. Jacob Sherson and colleagues developed an online game platform called Quantum Moves, in which some of these operations are presented as games.
These games have been played about 500,000 times by roughly 10,000 gamers. In one, BringHomeWater, the gamer is prompted to collect and move atoms to a target area as quickly as possible, in order to find a solution to an optimisation problem associated with a quantum computing operation.
The player moves atoms using a tightly focused laser beam, known as an "optical tweezer". The faster the atom is moved, the easier it is to spill the water. The gamers have to find the fastest way to 'bring home' the atom without losing it (spilling the water).
"The 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," Sherson says.
The study has shown that gamers not only succeed where purely numerical optimisation fails, they present an entirely new optimisation method. Gamers have solved problems using methods that outperforms prominent, established numerical methods.
The conclusion? Gamification is an effective tool for solving complex problems in the field of quantum physics. And gaming is useful for far more than entertainment alone.