Women in Science: Playing the Quantum computer game
By Dr Sabrina Maniscalco and Dr Suzanne McEndoo
Sabrina Maniscalco is a quantum physicist and a Reader at Heriot-Watt University. She is the Leader of the open Quantum Systems and Entanglement group (www.openquantum.co.uk) currently consisting of eight members (six of them women!). After obtaining her PhD in Palermo, Sicily she worked as a researcher in Bulgaria, South Africa and Finland, before finally settling down in Scotland. Her main research field is quantum physics and, specifically, quantum computers and other quantum technologies.
Sabrina took part in Soapbox Science 2013 earlier this year, when she stood on a soapbox on London’s Southbank and spoke to the public about her work, and to help promote the role of women in science.
You are a quantum state hunter. Your job, for which you have many years training, is to tag a particular type of quantum state in its natural habitat. Later, another group of scientists will examine the states you tag in detail, but for now, you just have to tag the best ones you can find.
You sit quietly in the centre of a sphere, the quantum state’s natural habitat, and wait. Soon the quantum states start to move towards you, like moths to a flame. This is bad for them, because the closer they get to you, the less quantum they become. You watch carefully as the sphere contracts, losing it’s quantumness. Suddenly, you spot a change in the movement above you. Some of the quantum states are resisting, pulling themselves back away from you and closer to their original levels of quantumness. You quickly tag these states, and then return to the centre of the sphere to spot the next wave of resistance.
This may sound like a silly fantasy story, but this is actually quite close to a new approach we are taking to our study of quantum physics. We want to study a phenomenon we call non-Markovianity, where quantum states that are losing their quantum properties to the world around them find a way to regain what they’ve lost. But not all quantum states act the same. Depending on where they start, some quantum states will simply lose everything over time, whereas other quantum states exposed to the same conditions can pull back and the quantumness can flow back into them.
To study the physics behind this, we need to find these resistant states. So we’re recruiting quantum state hunters. A good quantum state hunter doesn’t have to be a scientist, doesn’t even have to know anything of quantum physics. She has probably been in training since she was a child. She trains several times a day, on the bus, before dinner, with friends at the weekend. In short, a quantum state hunter plays games.
This isn’t an entirely new idea. Games have long been used for more than just entertainment. They teach, they explore, they communicate, they build bonds, and they can solve problems. Now that most people are carrying around a small computer in their pocket, in addition to any computers or consoles they may have at home, more people than ever are spending free moments playing games. And the more people play games, the better people get at playing games. We have found ourselves with a vast population with a great deal of expertise that can be put to good use.
A Game With A Purpose (GWAP) combines a game played for entertainment with another purpose or task. This can range from a game to teach to a game that classifies images for searches, or even a game to contribute to scientific research. Probably the most well known example of a scientific GWAP is Foldit. In Foldit, players fold simulated proteins and have already contributed not only to two new structures, but also to the algorithms for protein folding software themselves.
One of the reasons to use gamers to solve these problems is that human beings can still process certain types of data better than computers. For example, I can identify a photo of a dog with no difficulty but computers are still learning what “dog” corresponds to visually, and would have trouble if the photo only showed part of a dog.
In our game, we take advantage of human visual skills and the game playing skills of gamers to help us find the quantum states we want to study. To hear more about our game, you can visit our wiki, our website or follow us on Facebook. While our game is still being tested and improved, would-be quantum state hunters can hone their skills at Science At Home (www.scienceathome.org) run by quantum physicists in Denmark, where they can try to beat a computer at moving atoms.Tagged in: women in science
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