Last updated May 17, 2018 at 12:02 pm
A global collaboration used gaming as a way of exploring quantum mechanics.
If you want your drains fixed, call a plumber, but if you want an unmatched source of random numbers then you’d best start enlisting video-gamers, it turns out.
A letter in the journal Nature describes how an international team of physicists – including some from Griffith University in Queensland – persuaded more than 100,000 gamers from around the world to play simultaneously for 12 hours in a quest to test the fundamentals of quantum mechanics.
Quantum theory rests firmly in opposition to two assumptions, known as locality and realism. These hold that nothing in the universe moves faster than the speed of light – and everything in the universe possesses physical properties regardless of whether anyone has measured them.
Quantum mechanics holds that these seemingly self-evident statements aren’t true. The standard way to interrogate them is called a Bell test, which was first formulated in 1964.
Such tests, however, require three initial conditions: entangled particles that are nowhere near each other (spatially differentiated, in the jargon), fast and highly-efficient detection methods, and randomly generated measurement settings.
The first two of these, in any given instance, will be expressions of the technology used, but the third requires genuinely random number sequences – and therein lies a big problem.
Humans, as individuals, are pretty bad at generating such things. We tend to construct strings that look like a random bunch of numbers, but actually aren’t, because a whole mob of unconscious biases and beliefs materially affect the choices we make.
Mechanical or computational random number generators suffer from the same problem – because the biases and beliefs of the makers or programmers are coded into the way they operate. This is known as the “freedom of choice” loophole – and it’s a constant headache for quantum researchers.
A very large consortium of physicists collectively known as the Big Bell Test Collaboration, however, appears to have found a way to close the loophole and generate a veritable flood of highly random number sequences.
The key, they discovered, was to use gamers – lots and lots of gamers. The scientists recruited more than 100,000 gaming volunteers from around the world, and set them playing a specially designed browser game called Big Bell Quest.
Huge and random
The game required players to generate sequences of zeroes and ones, levelling up progressively as successive goals were reached. Individual biases in number selection, the researchers reasoned, would be swamped by the mass of numbers created – resulting in a truly huge, and truly random, haul.
On November 30, 2016, once everyone was up to speed, all the gamers were asked to play the game all at once, for 12 hours straight. In doing so they created a hefty stream of random numbers that fed into the Consortium at an impressive 1000 bits per second.
The data stream was immediately diverted to groups of scientists who conducted 13 different Bell tests.
The results, the researchers now report, “strongly contradict” the idea that quantum outcomes are not actually produced by the mechanics the theory describes. They found no evidence that the outcomes were produced by other, “hidden” forces.
Over all, the exercise provides strong evidence to support the contention that locality and realism are, in fact, neither local nor real.
It also, the researchers note, shows the usefulness of “the utilisation of video-game methods for rapid collection of human-generated randomness.”
And if that isn’t a great reason to fire up the PS4 and get button-mashing, we don’t know what is.