Do you want to leave your mark on science and technology? Do you yearn to be at the forefront of research, but your only true skill is playing video games? Then this is your lucky day, because Decodoku wants you to play — for science!

Uncle Sam

Image from the Public Domain.

Decodoku is a platform built by University of Basel postdoc Dr James Wootton with the university and NCCR QSIT to allow the public mind to crack open problems of quantum error correction. In English, that means it’s a platform supported by some of Switzerland’s top scientific institutions aiming to solve quantum noise and make quantum computers possible — and they want you to help them do it by playing a simple game. Wootton has even put a nice spin on the program. The homepage calls it the Phi-Lambda mission and has this recruitment-y, militarish vibe to it that works really well — you can see it here.

What’s the game all about

Decodoku

It won’t win any prizes for graphics, but it’s loads of fun.

Decodoku is a way of simulating the build-up of unwanted quantum interactions in one such computer. There are currently three kinds of Decodoku — Decodoku, Decodoku:Colors and Decodoku:Puzzles. I’ll talk about Colors because it’s the only one I’ve had a chance to play so far.

You’re presented with a few groups of Greek symbols that you have to pair up. If you have more than two of a kind remaining, one of the symbols will disappear upon each pairing. If you only have two left, they will both disappear. The goal of the game is to pair up all the symbols — at least I think so. I’ve never actually been able to get to that point. And that’s because once every 5 moves, new symbols spawn. Sometimes a lot more symbols spawn at a time than you can clear in the allotted 5 moves. Old groups of symbols get progressively bigger the more they’re left unpaired. Oh, and they can also do something extremely annoying — these groups merge together into one ubergroup of “game over”.

Because if any group manages to span the board (reaching two opposing sides of the square) you lose. Which happens quite often.

Now James kinda figured out that it’s an uphill battle than you can’t win so what he asks of players is that they try to pass the 200 points mark (you get a point for each move) and then explain to him the method you used or give him a way of observing your game (such as sending the save file or a video replay.) He hopes that by observing your actions, he can deduce the underlying system that your brain uses in keeping the board under control — a system which can then be used to prevent a catastrophic build-up of quantum noise in a quantum computer. And the most exciting part is that your work will be actual research. As the FAQ page states:

“The specific problems studied in these puzzles aren’t ones we are currently working on. But they are the best ones for the public to contribute to. So you are doing your own research work, in parallel to ours.”

It’s an awesome example of gamification, and hopefully this project it will bring about spectacular breakthroughs for quantum computing as it did for other fields. Decodoku is available on pretty much any major OS out there, in English or German. You can play it anywhere, while waiting for the bus or pretending to work hard in the office. It uses so little resources you could probably run it on a typewriter. It’s also really easy to understand its basics but incredibly hard to master — I’ve only reached about 150 points in roughly half of hour of playing Colors.

And just like every good game to date, there’s high scores and rewards. The player with the highest score for Colors by the end of the year will receive “The Grand Prize of a 300CHF Amazon voucher (hopefully enough to buy a Nintendo Switch!)” and there are also seven prizes of 100CHF Amazon vouchers “hopefully enough for a Mini NES!” for players of any of the three games “that made the best efforts to contribute to the science.” That’s about 278€ and 92€ respectively (US$295 and $97) at today’s rate, but Wootton advises that the prizes will take on the rate of the day they’re awarded on.

So get gaming!

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