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How human minds rival problem-solving powers of supercomputers

The Alice Challenge

Researchers have developed a gaming platform that allows experts as well as hundreds of citizen scientists - all over the world, through multiplayer collaboration and in real time - to successfully cool atoms for a quantum gas experiment in a lab at Aarhus University.

Pitted against previous solutions reached over months by computer algorithms, both the team of citizen scientists and the experts were able to cool the atoms in the gas in such a way which rivalled the computer’s calculations.

Comparing experts, algorithms and citizen scientists is a first step towards unravelling how humans solve complex, natural science problems.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Sussex in the UK, Aarhus University in Denmark and Ulm University in Germany have taken important first steps by analysing the performance and search strategy of both a state-of-the-art computer algorithm and citizen scientists in their real-time optimisation of an experimental laboratory setting.

Numerous citizen science projects have shown that humans can compete with state-of-the-art algorithms in terms of solving complex, natural science problems. However, these projects have so far not addressed why a collective of citizen scientists can solve such complex problems.

In a future characterised by algorithms with ever increasing computational power, it is essential to understand the difference between human and machine intelligence. This will enable the development of hybrid-intelligence interfaces that optimally exploit the best of both worlds. By making complex research challenges available for contribution by the general public, citizen science does exactly this.

In the ‘Alice Challenge’, Robert Heck and colleagues gave both experts and citizen scientists live access to their ultra-cold quantum gas experiment. This was made possible by using a novel remote interface created by the team at ScienceAtHome, Aarhus University.

The experiment is called the Alice Challenge after the Lewis Carroll character. The team see their work as an exploration of new, exotic worlds.

Dr Mark Bason, Research Fellow in Experimental Physics at the University of Sussex, comments:

“Progress in science is very frequently the result of close collaboration between established groups, such as those from academia or industry. However, technology has advanced so far that many new interactions are possible. By opening up our research, we can now benefit from the skills of players, algorithms and hybrid approaches of the two.

“The Alice Challenge suggests that computers need not operate in isolation from the public. Instead, the future is likely to see people working alongside computers to solve the world’s most complex problems together.”

By manipulating laser beams and magnetic fields, the task was to cool as many atoms as possible down to extremely cold temperatures just above absolute zero at -273.15°C. This collection of atoms, called a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) is a distinct state of matter (like solid, liquid, gas or plasma) that constitutes an ideal candidate for performing quantum simulation experiments and high precision measurements.

Both groups successfully used the remote interface to improve on previously optimal solutions. In this first-ever citizen science experimental optimisation challenge with real-time feedback, the researchers further quantified the behaviour of citizen scientists. They concluded that what makes human problem solving unique is how a collective of individuals balance innovative attempts and refine existing solutions based on their previous performance.

The research is published today (Wednesday 14 November 2018) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

By: Anna Ford
Last updated: Wednesday, 14 November 2018