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Physicists are building a quantum computer by studying how people play this odd puzzle game

What do physicists do when they can’t solve a bunch of complicated problems in quantum mechanics? They give the task to gamers.

Danish physicists and researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark have developed a new video game called Quantum Moves that challenges gamers to race against the clock and solve seemingly simple puzzles. The catch is the game behaves by the strange principles of quantum physics. It may seem easy to balance and carry a mysterious liquid across a 2D map. But this liquid doesn’t respond to movement like your average cup of water. It’s like a petulant and unpredictably viscous child. Move the cursor too quickly and the liquid sloshes out in incredible waves. Move the cursor too slowly and you’re beat by the clock.

Oddly enough, the liquid’s bizarre mechanics becomes somewhat familiar after completing a handful of rounds – or, rather, the gamer comes to intuitively grasp how best to transport the liquid across the map. This isn’t easy. That aha moment is preceded by plenty of frustration, grunts, and expletives. But gamers’ eventual and intuitive command of the challenge has helped physicists develop an algorithm that’s been more successful than supercomputers at solving complex quantum physics problems.

Physicists Jens Jakob Sørensen, Mads Kock Pedersen, et al. published their findings this week in the journal Nature. The researchers aggregated the input of 10,000 players and half a million Quantum Move’s puzzles to create an algorithm that approaches real world quantum physics problems with the intuition that humans use to find simple solutions. (The real world problem demands a set of directions to efficiently transport atoms clouds.) The algorithm informed by human intuition proved more valuable than the algorithm informed by data-crunching supercomputers. As Sørensen and his colleagues put it, “Players succeed where purely numerical optimization fails.”

This method of exploiting non-experts (e.g. gamers) to solve scientific problems is colloquially known as “citizen science.” Sørensen and his team point to humans’ innate tendency to solve complicated problems by forming intuitive solutions as an asset in this approach. Computers can crunch tremendous amounts of data, but humans outperform machines when it comes to intuitive tasks like abstract pattern recognition. Past applications of citizen science have seen gamers help map the brain and even unravel the complexities of protein folding — but this is the first time quantum physics researchers have turned to the crowd to illuminate the mysteries of the physical world.