Research highlight

Citizen science: Gamers solve quantum physics problems


April 14, 2016

Online computer games that allow human players to solve a class of problems in quantum physics thatcannot be easily solved by algorithms alone,are reported ina study in this week’s Nature. 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.

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 players. In one of the games, BringHomeWater, the user is prompted to collect and move atoms to a target area as quickly as possible, in order to find a solution to an optimization problem associated with a quantum computing operation. In this game the user moves atoms using a tightly focused laser beam, a so-called ‘optical tweezer’. “The faster the atom is moved, the easier it is to spill the water. The players thus have to find the fastest way to ‘bring home’ the atom without losing it (spilling the water)”, explains Sabrina Maniscalco in an accompanying News & Views article.

The authors find that players succeed where purely numerical optimization fails, and they present a new optimization method based on the observed player strategies that outperforms prominent, established numerical methods. These results confirm that ‘gamification’ - the application of game elements in a non-game context - is an effective tool for solving complex problems in the field of quantum physics.

doi: 10.1038/nature17620

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