Can a game teach kids quantum mechanics?

Five months ago, I received an email and then a phone call from Google’s Creative Lab Executive Producer, Lorraine Yurshansky. Lo, as she prefers to be called, is not your average thirty year-old. She has produced award-winning short films like Peter at the End (starring Napoleon Dynamite, aka Jon Heder), launched the wildly popular Maker Camp on Google+ and had time to run a couple of New York marathons as a warm-up to all of that. So why was she interested in talking to a quantum physicist?

You may remember reading about Google’s recent collaboration with NASA and D-Wave, on using NASA’s supercomputing facilities along with a D-Wave Two machine to solve optimization problems relevant to both Google (Glass, for example) and NASA (analysis of massive data sets). It was natural for Google, then, to want to promote this new collaboration through a short video about quantum computers. The video appeared last week on Google’s YouTube channel:

This is a very exciting collaboration in my view. Google has opened its doors to quantum computation and this has some powerful consequences. And it is all because of D-Wave. But, let me put my perspective in context, before Scott Aaronson unleashes the hounds of BQP on me.

Two years ago, together with Science magazine’s 2010 Breakthrough of the Year winner, Aaron O’ Connell, we decided to ask Google Ventures for $10,000,000 dollars to start a quantum computing company based on technology Aaron had developed as a graduate student at John Martini’s group at UCSB. The idea we pitched was that a hand-picked team of top experimentalists and theorists from around the world, would prototype new designs to achieve longer coherence times and greater connectivity between superconducting qubits, faster than in any academic environment. Google didn’t bite. At the time, I thought the reason behind the rejection was this: Google wants a real quantum computer now, not just a 10 year plan of how to make one based on superconducting X-mon qubits that may or may not work.

I was partially wrong. The reason for the rejection was not a lack of proof that our efforts would pay off eventually – it was a lack of any prototype on which Google could run algorithms relevant to their work. In other words, Aaron and I didn’t have something that Google could use right-away. But D-Wave did and Google was already dating D-Wave One for at least three years, before marrying D-Wave Two this May. Quantum computation has much to offer Google, so I am excited to see this relationship blossom (whether it be D-Wave or Pivit Inc that builds the first quantum computer). Which brings me back to that phone call five months ago…

Lorraine: Hi Spiro. Have you heard of Google’s collaboration with NASA on the new Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab?

Me: Yes. It is all over the news!

Lo: Indeed. Can you help us design a mod for Minecraft to get kids excited about quantum mechanics and quantum computers?

Me: Minecraft? What is Minecraft? Is it like Warcraft or Starcraft?

Lo: (Omg, he doesn’t know Minecraft!?! How old is this guy?) Ahh, yeah, it is a game where you build cool structures by mining different kinds of blocks in this sandbox world. It is popular with kids.

Me: Oh, okay. Let me check out the game and see what I can come up with.

After looking at the game I realized three things:
1. The game has a fan base in the tens of millions.
2. There is an annual convention (Minecon) devoted to this game alone.
3. I had no idea how to incorporate quantum mechanics within Minecraft.

Lo and I decided that it would be better to bring some outside help, if we were to design a new mod for Minecraft. Enter E-Line Media and TeacherGaming, two companies dedicated to making games which focus on balancing the educational aspect with gameplay (which influences how addictive the game is). Over the next three months, producers, writers, game designers and coder-extraordinaire Dan200, came together to create a mod for Minecraft. But, we quickly came to a crossroads: Make a quantum simulator based on Dan200’s popular ComputerCraft mod, or focus on gameplay and a high-level representation of quantum mechanics within Minecraft?

The answer was not so easy at first, especially because I kept pushing for more authenticity (I asked Dan200 to create Hadamard and CNOT gates, but thankfully he and Scot Bayless – a legend in the gaming world – ignored me.) In the end, I would like to think that we went with the best of both worlds, given the time constraints we were operating under (a group of us are attending Minecon 2013 to showcase the new mod in two weeks) and the young audience we are trying to engage. For example, we decided that to prepare a pair of entangled qubits within Minecraft, you would use the Essence of Entanglement, an object crafted using the Essence of Superposition (Hadamard gate, yay!) and Quantum Dust placed in a CNOT configuration on a crafting table (don’t ask for more details). And when it came to Quantum Teleportation within the game, two entangled quantum computers would need to be placed at different parts of the world, each one with four surrounding pylons representing an encoding/decoding mechanism. Of course, on top of each pylon made of obsidian (and its far-away partner), you would need to place a crystal, as the required classical side-channel. As an authorized quantum mechanic, I allowed myself to bend quantum mechanics, but I could not bring myself to mess with Special Relativity.

As the mod launched two days ago, I am not sure how successful it will be. All I know is that the team behind its development is full of superstars, dedicated to making sure that John Preskill wins this bet (50 years from now):

The plan for the future is to upload a variety of posts and educational resources on discussing the science behind the high-level concepts presented within the game, at a level that middle-schoolers can appreciate. So, if you play Minecraft (or you have kids over the age of 10), download qCraft now and start building. It’s a free addition to Minecraft.

34 thoughts on “Can a game teach kids quantum mechanics?

  1. Very nice, but you should include one of the qCrafting videos here! I had no idea how exactly you were teaching quantum until I went to the wiki.

    • Indeed. Still, I couldn’t come up with a better word for describing the playability + complexity and variety of structures within the new mod. Any suggestions?

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    • Superposition and GHZ states are implemented. An entangled pair is created using a hadamard and CNOT gate, though not explicitly. Quantum mechanics is hiding in the background for two reasons: 1. This is for people that don’t already know quantum mechanics and 2. Creating a quantum simulator is impossible within a classical network.

      There is more coming.

  3. I watched the tutorial videos with my 9.5 year old son (who already spends far too much time on Minecraft…), and he went ahead and downloaded the Tekkit modpack. He says qcraft is “totally cool and awesome”, and is bubbling about it to all his elementary school friends. (The Ithaca elementary school demographic is probably not representative, in having some significant percentage of students predisposed to think quantum is cool…)

    I understand the compromises that had to be made to embed quantum effects into a game, and they certainly capture the “essence” of entanglement and observation for the most part.
    (The “quantum teleporter”, alas, strikes me as more of a “Star Trek teleporter”, right to the “energize” button, but I suppose just transmitting only the state to matter already present wouldn’t be as impressive. Still, having some pile of rubble converted to a beautiful state, leaving the original a pile of rubble, would have been more faithful to QM and various conservation laws.)

    I’m avoiding explaining anything to him, just to see how much “intuition” he can glean from this on his own. (He has no prior exposure to QM ideas.) One scenario is that he’ll start asking questions as well, which would be great fun, though of course most of the rest of the target demographic won’t have anyone at home to answer them.

    • Paul, the fun begins now. If things go well, IQIM will be developing a series of resources about quantum mechanics in collaboration with Google and MinecraftEDU geared towards middle school kids and higher. Blog posts, animations, anything we can come up with to bring kids playing QCraft a step closer to the complexities and beauty of quantum mechanics. There are already two YouTube videos demonstrating Schrödinger’s cat experiment using the mod. And it’s only been 5 days since it’s release… As for the “energize” button on the quantum computer, all I can say is 🙂

  4. So, instead of spending 10 million to fund Martinis’s QC through O’Connell/Privit, the wise people of Google have chosen instead to spend the 10 million on a video game that uses vague metaphors to confuse the hell out of little kids trying to understand quantum mechanics.

    If I wanted to teach a little kid tennis, should I advise him to first learn to play a pinball game with the theme of tennis? Will that make him learn tennis more quickly than if I take him to a tennis court on day 1 and put a racket in his hands?

    How does qCraft compare to a true science tool like Starry Night for astronomy, which is just as accessible to Paul Ginsparg’s 9 year old son as qCraft, but teaches real science instead of nonsense, or science at the level of the Huffington post.

    How does qcraft compare to the ARRL (American Radio Relay League) publications and ham radio clubs, which again are as accessible to Paul Ginsparg’s 9 year old son as qCraft, but teach real science..

    Does Google intend to produce the equivalent of Starry Night or an ARRL for quantum mechanics? If not, I think this qcraft project is of little benefit (or even is detrimental) to science and science education.

    • Dear rrtucci,

      Where did you get the 10 million dollar figure for the production of this free mod? Also, have you installed the mod and played with it while in the presence of a 9 year old? Finally, which part of observational dependency, superposition or entanglement is too vague for you within the mod? Please be specific. I plan to write a series of articles on discussing the concepts behind the mechanics of the new mod. Your input would be helpful. Still, I would like to make clear that in the future, if you continue with baseless accusations, you will be banned from further commenting.


  5. Dear Spiros,
    I wasn’t criticizing you, at least not very much.

    99% of my criticism was directed at Google. I did give specifics: I gave you two routes, Starry Night and ARRL which I consider gold standards which Google should emulate.

    I won’t say anything further because you are already threatening to ban me from Athens, forgetting that your ancestors invented democracy, which includes the right to express ones opinions civilly, which is just what I did.

    • Dear rrtucci,

      Two things:
      1. You criticized the creators of this mod. I think I made it clear that Eline Media, MinecraftEDU, Daniel Ratcliffe (Dan200) and myself are responsible for the mod. Google, and in particular, Lorraine and her team, brought us together and let us do our work requesting occasional meetings to get updates on the timeline and the direction we were taking the mod. Their input was extremely helpful and to the point. You claimed something else, even more specific than starry night and ARRL – a ten million dollar production cost for the mod. As a scientist, you should know better than conflate the making of a small budget educational mod for Minecraft, with the purchase of a machine from D-Wave, if that is where you get the number you quote.

      2. It takes precious time to fight against libel. Your original comment is the definition of libel: an unfounded accusation. The harm that it does is multi-faceted, but I personally care about one facet: A parent thinking that a mod created as a labor of love is instead a waste of time and money that may corrupt the minds of children. This kind of behavior (trolling) will not be tolerated on this blog.

      As for being from Athens, you are correct. But this is not Athens. This is Sparta.

  6. Interesting article. It might seem unattainable now, but quantum processors will eventually achieve some astonishing things, like run computer simulated universes that are indistinguishable from our own “real” universe, even complete with simulated minds. There is a new book that discusses the implications of quantum computers on the construction of “simulations” such as MineCraft (i.e., “On Computer Simulated Universes”). The author discusses that if quantum computers can someday run simulated universes, then there must also must be a series of computer simulated universes contained within computer simulated universes. With many active simulations, there would be a range of physical properties differing from universe to universe. Universes with more positive physical traits to support life would produce better environments for more advanced civilizations to evolve to the point where they themselves would create their own computer simulated universes. And this process would continue. So over time, universes would evolve with the physics more favorable for life. He conjectures that universes, over time, have been naturally selected for particular physical properties, with an end result of creating more and more habitable universes. In other words, this could explain how the laws of physics might actually evolve inside a Matryoshkaverse (like the Russian wooden dolls with one or more dolls each nested inside another). We are on the verge of a technological revolution.

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  9. Hello. Some late technical question. I had some interest relating reversible and quantum cellular automata. Could Minecraft be in principle useful as a tool for investigation of 3D cellular automata models?

      • Currently I only trying to realize, if Minecraft in principle may be useful – for example I tested 2D reversible cellular automata models (I found convenient computationally universal one with possibility of distribution of some “signals”), but may not find appropriate way of simple editing and visualization of similar 3D models. Next step may be yet 2D quantum automata for simple cases like modeling “weak” entanglement (technical problem here to find QCA rules accepting patterns with not very fast growth of number of terms in superposition) – I still even do not know, if 3D extension of such model has some advantages in comparison with 2D.

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