A Playful Approach to Quantum Computing

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 Decodoku screenshots

Decodoku screenshots

One day, quantum computers will perform rapid calculations and solve complex tasks for us. However, there are a few hurdles to overcome along the way. Basel-based physicist Dr James Wootton is searching for methods that allow information to be encoded and then decoded again using quantum mechanics. And a game for smartphones is going to help him do so.

Far more complex calculations in a fraction of the time: the theoretical performance of quantum computers leaves conventional PCs in the dust. Although quantum computing currently remains largely theoretical, it already presents serious challenges for cryptographers. With the help of quantum computers, it may soon be possible to crack encryption systems that are currently considered secure.

From bits to qubits
New encryption methods must therefore obey the laws of quantum mechanics. In contrast to binary bits, which store information in chains of zeros and ones, the information units in a quantum computer are more complex. The principle of quantum superposition means that the so-called qubit is not simply a zero or one, but can actually assume both states simultaneously – and these states can also influence one another.

However, a qubit is both fragile and prone to error: if it is observed, the quantum superposition – and therefore the information – is lost. Qubits must therefore be decoded without ‘looking’.

This is the starting point for the research of Dr. James Wootton, who is working on quantum theory as a postdoc at the University of Basel. Wootton is looking for an algorithm which can be used to correct errors in qubits without the loss of information. In doing so, he is adopting the unusual approach of seeking help from everyone who whips out their smartphone at the bus stop to pass the time until the next bus.

Decoding + Sudoku = Decodoku
Wootton has translated his research into a game, and Decodoku resembles Sudoku in more than just name. It requires users to rack their brains and solve puzzles to achieve a new high score, while simultaneously doing their bit for science. Innovative approaches to solutions will, Wootton says, provide him with clues as to how to design an algorithm for quantum error correction. “The problems built into the game are very difficult for computers to solve – humans, on the other hand, find them considerably easier. We’re trying to work out why this is the case and what conclusions we can draw from it,” says Wootton of the motivation behind the game.

Decodoku is available as an app in two versions – for iOS and also for Android. The game can also be played online. For anyone who wishes to delve deeper into the subject, Wootton gives a detailed and comprehensible description of the scientific background to Decodoku on his blog. He also answered, along with other quantum researchers from Switzerland, questions about the game and his research on the science section of popular website Reddit.

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