Are humans the new supercomputer?
As a society we have become incredibly reliant on technology, from spell check to GPS, we are slowly being replaced by computers. Need more proof, a computer can routinely beat us at chess, an AI wrote portions of a book that went on to almost win a writing contest, and if you want scary robotics enter Boston dynamics spot. So the question is, have we outlived our place in the world? Not quite. Welcome to the front line of research in cognitive skills, quantum computers and gaming.
If you’ve been following our blog (you know who you are), you know I am a big fan of the idea of biological computing. Give me a computer that can repair itself and literally grow to fit my needs and I will take it over the static computers we are using today. So while computers can kick the biological bits out of us when it comes to certain tasks, we are certainly not beaten yet. Don’t worry, it isn’t just us, this is one of the conclusions of a recent study by Danish physicist Jacob Sherson.
“It may sound dramatic, but we are currently in a race with technology — and steadily being overtaken in many areas. Features that used to be uniquely human are fully captured by contemporary algorithms.” “Our results are here to demonstrate that there is still a difference between the abilities of a man and a machine,” explains Jacob Sherson, Danish physicist.
At the interface between quantum physics and computer games, the research group at Aarhus University have identified one of the abilities that still makes us unique compared to a computer’s enormous processing power: our skill in approaching problems heuristically and solving them intuitively. The discovery was made at the AU Ideas Centre CODER, where an interdisciplinary team of researchers work to transfer some human traits to the way computer algorithms work.
In other words, they want to help imbue computers with a more human way of thinking to help close the gap between what we do well and what computers do well.
Yes, yes, Skynet, robot overlords, end of the world, but there is actually really good reasons to accomplish this. Quantum physics holds the promise of immense technological advances in areas ranging from computing to high-precision measurements. However, the problems that need to be solved to get there are so complex that even the most powerful supercomputers struggle with them. This is where the core idea behind CODER–combining the processing power of computers with human ingenuity — becomes clear.
Like Columbus in QuantumLand, the CODER research group mapped out how the human brain is able to make decisions based on intuition and accumulated experience. This is done using the online game “Quantum Moves“. Over 10,000 people have played the game that allows everyone contribute to basic research in quantum physics.
“The map we created gives us insight into the strategies formed by the human brain. We behave intuitively when we need to solve an unknown problem, whereas for a computer this is incomprehensible.”
“A computer churns through enormous amounts of information, but we can choose not to do this by basing our decision on experience or intuition. It is these intuitive insights that we discovered by analysing the Quantum Moves player solutions,” explains Jacob Sherson.
The laws of quantum physics dictate an upper-speed limit for data manipulation, which in turn sets the ultimate limit to the processing power of quantum computers — the aptly named Quantum Speed Limit. Until now a computer algorithm has been used to identify this limit. It turns out that with human input researchers can find much better solutions than the algorithm.
“The players solve a very complex problem by creating simple strategies. Where a computer goes through all available options, players automatically search for a solution that intuitively feels right.”
“Through our analysis we found that there are common features in the players’ solutions, providing a glimpse into the shared intuition of humanity. If we can teach computers to recognise these good solutions, calculations will be much faster. In a sense we are downloading our common intuition to the computer” says Jacob Sherson.
And it works. The group has shown that we can break the Quantum Speed Limit by combining the cerebral cortex and computer chips. This is the new powerful tool in the development of quantum computers and other quantum technologies.
Science is often perceived as something distant and exclusive, conducted behind closed doors. To enter you have to go through years of education, and preferably have a doctorate or two. Now a completely different reality is materialising.
In recent years, a new phenomenon has appeared–citizen science breaks down the walls of the laboratory and invites in everyone who wants to contribute. The team at Aarhus University uses games to engage people in voluntary science research. Every week people around the world spend 3 billion hours playing games. Games are entering almost all areas of our daily life and have the potential to become an invaluable resource for science.
“Who needs a supercomputer if we can access even a small fraction of this computing power? By turning science into games, anyone can do research in quantum physics. We have shown that games break down the barriers between quantum physicists and people of all backgrounds, providing phenomenal insights into state-of-the-art research.”
“Our project combines the best of both worlds and helps challenge established paradigms in computational research,” explains Jacob Sherson.
The difference between the machine and us, figuratively speaking, is that we intuitively reach for the needle in a haystack without knowing exactly where it is. We ‘guess’ based on experience and thereby skip a whole series of bad options. For Quantum Moves, intuitive human actions have been shown to be compatible with the best computer solutions. In the future, it will be exciting to explore many other problems with the aid of human intuition.
So why the biological computing references? Well, it’s not too hard to think that this sort of research will help us determine a way to code for biology, in fact, researchers are already working on that. So then why take the time to do this story over that story? Because this highlights a large gap in computing that needs to be overcome.
Moreover, without determining how to code for things like human intuition, playing around with our own biology — or supplementing it with implantable tech — will just be a smartphone without the need to reach for it. We can do better — and I think that we should expect better — because better is coming. Will it lead to Skynet and robot overlords? Probably not, but of all the ways for humanity to go out, you have to admit it is a lot cooler than global warming.
Sørensen, J., Pedersen, M., Munch, M., Haikka, P., Jensen, J., Planke, T., Andreasen, M., Gajdacz, M., Mølmer, K., Lieberoth, A., & Sherson, J. (2016). Exploring the quantum speed limit with computer games Nature, 532 (7598), 210-213 DOI: 10.1038/nature17620