During the first week of September, three rooms in a joint lab shared by IBM and Wits University in Johannesburg doubled as something that would have been impossible just a few years ago. The site was, in effect, a quantum arcade — a space full of games that incorporate quantum computing either into their design or control loop.
Researchers who had gathered for the World Economic Forum used games there — many of them developed by IBM researcher James Wootton — to expose developers and students to the basics of quantum computing hardware.
Quantum computing remains in its formative stages, but its potential to process data exponentially faster than traditional computers could bring about seismic shifts in everything from pharmaceutical research (Biogen has explored quantum-enabled molecule modeling) to finance (Citi and Goldman Sachs both invest in quantum). Naturally, gamers want to know if that outsize computing muscle will transform games, too.
Right now, Wootton sees the quantum-to-gaming relationship as reciprocal.
“‘What can quantum computers do for games?’ is an important question for the game industry, but also, what can games do for quantum computers?” he said.
To that end, many quantum games are meta; they’re about quantum. For example, Qubit the Barbarian — a personal favorite of James’ and part of the World Economic Forum arcade — is, essentially, a labyrinth puzzle game that also brilliantly illustrates the foundational concept of quantum computing: unlike traditional computers, where information is binary (one or zero), quantum computers operate on qubits (which can simultaneously exist as different states — one, zero or both). That so-called superposition is at the heart of quantum computers’ ability to perform tasks far faster than classical computers.
THE FUTURE (AND PRESENT) OF QUANTUM GAMING
Committing Random Acts
Quantum’s herculean processing power will shape games in a few key ways, according to Wootton. Its ability to factor large numbers should help improve so-called procedural generation — the method by which games populate random elements such as characters and level layouts. If you’re a game developer working today, “you’re hampered by the fact that you don’t have good, fast analysis algorithms at the moment, which quantum computers could help with,” Wootton said. “I think that’s going to be the first use of quantum in games.”
It’s already happening, in fact. Wootton himself developed a proof of principle in which he built out randomly generated game terrain using a quantum computer.
That point is worth underlining: Quantum computing opens the door to random number generation that’s genuinely random, which could mean truly unpredictable game maps and character encounters, as opposed to present-day games that exhibit seemingly random elements but which actually follow patterns. Think about how often those Skyrim guards used to mention an arrow in the knee.
This presents a problem that quantum could also potentially tackle: Games that are literally impossible to solve aren’t so much fun to play. Quantum’s optimization muscle would determine whether or not some stretch of randomly generated challenges — be they physical obstacles, swarms of antagonists or puzzles — can actually be overcome. And if so, what’s the optimal way to go about it? Simply put, quantum helps us know the best way to get from start to finish. (Like others in the quantum space, Wootton has invoked quantum computing’s potential to quickly handle the so-called traveling salesman problem when discussing optimization.)
Quantum Leaps in Artificial Intelligence & Graphics
Optimization also relates to another of quantum’s potential points of impact: its promise to produce much better artificial intelligence. AI is what governs the behavior of a game’s non-player-controlled characters, which means quantum AI should render characters that are far more realistic, precise and detailed than what gamers encounter today.
“The AI in a game is trying to play the game as well, like, say, your opponent in Mario Kart,” Wootton said. “So they’re going to try to work out what the optimal strategy is in order to do it, and optimization problems like that are examples of things that could be speeded up.”
Don’t expect some sort of supernatural sentience among the characters, but they should conceivably behave more intelligently and with more complexity.
“It's not bestowing some magical quantum thought upon the AI,” Wootton said. “In this case, it's more about giving the AI better resources to work out what to do.”
Among the most exciting areas of focus, though further down the road, is graphics. In order to render graphics, computers must perform database searches. Quantum computing promises to exponentially speed up and optimize those searches.
In a presentation earlier this year at a quantum game jam in Helsinki, Wootton invoked a handy metaphor for quantum’s non-linear search functionality. Classical computing search is akin to searching a phonebook by last name, as one does (or once did); quantum search is like searching the same directory by phone number, effectively and quickly.
While Wootton isn’t particularly focused on quantum graphics, he is doing some cool work with quantum computing and visuals.
“I made a method which takes a pixel image, then checks it into a quantum state, and also the opposite: taking a quantum state and putting it into a pixel image,” he said.
The middle state between the transitions becomes a testing ground to try out manipulations.
“It could be a weird effect or making some sort of animation,” even a scientifically accurate teleportation animation, if you run it through a quantum teleportation circuit, Wootton said.
“I can also use it to generate terrain, which you can then render in a 3D graphics engine and explore.”
THE QUANTUM COMPUTING GAMING INDUSTRY
Like quantum computing itself, quantum gaming is still developing. But researchers and developers are already working on bridging theory and reality. Here are a few other outfits shaping the future of video games.
The next stage of quantum computer gaming will likely be written in some part by Microsoft, one of the few entities with a major presence in both arenas. The tech powerhouse is helping drive quantum computing development (you can help by practicing some QC-related programming exercises and contributing to the company’s open-source Quantum Development Kit), and of course counts Xbox in its confederacy of brands.
One of the company’s QC pacesetters has emphasized the technology’s aforementioned capability to genuinely randomize. Jeff Henshaw, group program manager of Microsoft Quantum Computing, told Gizmodo, “In a world where truly random behaviors can be informed by quantum processes, we can create environments, and scores of enemies, that feel natural in their behaviors even over infinite periods of play.”
The two-things-at-once simultaneity that informs bedrock quantum concepts like superposition, entanglement and measurement can be difficult to visualize. One good metaphor? A chess piece that can occupy two spaces at once. University of Southern California research assistant Chris Cantwell’s Quantum Chess is the closest thing we’ve seen to a quantum game “hit.” After a successful Kickstarter, the game — which doubles as a fun illustration of quantum mechanics — is available to play through Steam. Cantwell has written extensively about his game and its implications. But the Keanu Reeves-narrated viral video of the late Stephen Hawking and Paul Rudd engaged in an epic quantum chess battle, put together after Cantwell’s two-year collaboration with Caltech IQIM, is more fun by orders of magnitude.
Wootton has identified this Toronto startup and Creative Destruction Lab alumnus as one of the few currently tackling the fledgling arena of quantum graphics. Boxcat, which has received partial funding from Bloomberg Beta, uses a quantum-classical hybrid to speed up image rendering times. Its breakthrough achievement? The company claims to have created the world’s first quantum computer-rendered image using a cloud-based access platform that connects users to a D-Wave Systems quantum computer.
“We made a rendering engine run on top of the platform they provided, and we were able to generate, as an output, a fully pre-processed image with the use of their quantum hardware,” Boxcat co-founder Ystallonne Alves wrote last year.
More recent updates are scarce — Boxcat’s social channels remain silent, and the company did not respond to a request for comment — but the seemingly near-stealth outfit remains one to watch.
And in the academic sector (from which video game developers often mine innovation), researcher Simona Caraiman has developed quantum algorithms for the polygon visibility problem and for global illumination, the term game developers use to describe the combination of reflections and refractions to create realistic lighting effects.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Drowning Out the Noise
Of course, quantum gaming can only advance at the rate of quantum computing itself, and scientists are still trying to clear some significant hurdles there — especially when it comes to noise. It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation. More qubits allow for more and greater computations, but more qubits also mean more noise. Delicate, fragile, error-prone — these are the descriptors one routinely encounters when talking qubits. The mere act of running processes or even measuring those vital computational building blocks contributes to noise, and that’s why a small, VC-abetted industry has cropped up to focus on quieting all that racket. (Some consider the problem impossible to solve, but that’s a minority opinion.)
There’s also the infamous issue of temperature control. Qubits on most quantum computers need to be kept at nearly absolute zero degrees (a cool -460 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to maintain stability.
Some enterprising game developers have flipped the noise bug into a feature, designing games that incorporate the instability into the gameplay. Wootton cites his own Quantum Awesomeness, a puzzle match game in which, thanks to quantum’s “fuzziness,” pairs get increasingly difficult to connect as levels progress.
“Puzzles from higher rounds require higher depth circuits, and so build-up of noise contributes to an increase in difficulty,” Wootton explained on GitHub. “The number of rounds that the game remains playable for therefore depends on the noise levels of the device.” His quantum spin on Battleship engages a similar element, where noise becomes another variable to consider for your under-attack fleet — it’s “just the weather buffeting the ship and bombs.”
Getting the Industry on Board
Those games are examples of quantum within the so-called game loop, but quantum in the near-term will be likely be used more for design phase work (things like the aforementioned optimization). Right now, those steps are coming more from the indie-dev world than the AAA studios. Among the participants at the Helsinki game jam was Jaakko Iisalo, the designer behind indie-turned-blockbuster Angry Birds — which, it turns out, is helpful in wrapping your head around quantum.
“The indie developer community has interest, so that’s the link we’re really thinking about fostering at the beginning,” Wootton said, noting that the big gaming companies might prove particularly interested in quantum’s promise for more sophisticated AI.
That fostering mission — part word-spreading, part development, part education — would soon take James, along with IBM Research communications manager Chris Sciacca, from South Africa to a Swiss Alpine lodge. There, the team would work with some 200 developers and students in game jams and hackathons for Qiskit, a quantum computing framework.
“We have the technology available,” Sciacca said. “People will start playing around with this to become familiar with it, both enterprises as well as developers. We want to build up that community and get people familiar with the technology so they can get to take advantage of it — and develop some cool stuff.”
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