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 qcraft.org 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.