We love citizen science because it allows the whole world to contribute. Some scientific problems can only be solved with the help of many people, which is why the Galaxy Zoo website asks users to help classify galaxies. Sometimes citizen science is disguised as gaming, like the new minigame in EVE Online that asks players to look for patterns in real human tissue samples. Combining the internet and large numbers of people makes a powerful tool for scientists to solve real problems. The latest problem that gamers can help solve involves programming the first quantum computers.
Quantum mechanics can be very confusing but that’s normal. Some of the concepts in quantum mechanics feel quite alien compared to the everyday physics we’re used to. Scientists are making advances in understanding quantum mechanics and someday soon we’re going to have real quantum computers that use some of these concepts and will make today’s computers look like the first digital watches. Development is only just beginning and a lot of work needs be done before real quantum computers of a decent size can be made. Designing good compilers and optimisation techniques for quantum algorithms is one of the first challenges and that’s where you come in.
Quantum computing researchers are creating a 3D puzzle game called meQuanics for PC, iOS, and Android. It really is a game and not an educational program. It’s not supposed to teach you anything about quantum mechanics, so don’t worry if your physics knowledge isn’t strong. It’s not a PR thing to get more people into quantum computing; it’s a crowdsourcing approach to solving real problems.
The game provides quantum circuits and the player has to make them smaller without breaking the circuit. If you can, you’re helping real quantum computers become a reality. Without getting too technical, if we reduce the size of these circuits then we reduce the physical requirements for quantum computers. Individually all we would be doing is playing a clever puzzle game, but together we would be helping researchers to program the first quantum computers.
A lot of games for crowdsourcing science fall down because they only attract people wanting to contribute to science. To be truly successful, it has to stand up as a game in its own right. That’s why the new minigame in EVE Online has a presentation and story that fits into the EVE Online universe, so gamers feel like they’re just playing their game as usual.
meQuanics looks to reach as many people as possible by having a narrative and story that makes sense for the puzzle game. Players are racing across the universe using ships that rely on jump drives. In order to travel faster across the universe, you need to make your engines as efficient as possible be solving the 3D puzzles and making the circuits as small as possible. There will be a multiplayer element too for competition against others and working as teams. This approach proved useful for Foldit, where groups worked to reach the top of leader boards while solving protein structures.
As fun as the puzzling should be, there’s real science happening in the background. If you happen to find an extremely resource-efficient circuit that’s important to the field, the researchers say they will include you as an author on any scientific publications about your improved circuit. You could be a published scientist just for being awesome at a game.
The scientists and developers wanting to make this game a reality have taken to Kickstarter. They need $100,000 AUD to move ahead and there are awesome stretch goals including VR compatibility. They’re only at $1,491 AUD at the time of writing but there’s still almost a month left to go. If you pledge $10 AUD (£5.26) you’ll get a copy of the game on PC, iOS, or Android when it’s released.
Yay for science and playing games!
Main image © meQuanics