Scientists in Denmark have found that people who played a game that simulated a complex calculation in physics sometimes did better than their silicon rivals.
"The big surprise we had was that some of the players actually had solutions that were of high quality and of shorter duration than any computer algorithms could find," said Jacob Friis Sherson, a physicist at Aarhus University who co-wrote the study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Experts say the results could advance the quest to develop effective quantum computers, something most major universities and several tech companies are working on as they seek to accelerate processing power. Such computers use individual atoms to store information and it's hoped they could one day outperform even the fastest conventional silicon-based supercomputers.
The problem that Sherson and his colleagues set out to tackle concerns the best way to control the atoms using laser beams before their quantum state is disturbed. Time is limited and the number of possibilities is vast, meaning that even advanced computers struggle to find the perfect solution.
The scientists decided to create a game called Quantum Moves, in which players had to perform essentially the same task by using their mouse to simulate the laser beams that pick up the atoms and move them around.
This approach - known as gamification - has been used for several years to solve other scientific problems, such as identifying types of galaxies based on their shape.
"Most of the other efforts deal with pattern recognition whereas our game is very dynamic and intuition-based," said Sherson.
The team found that players were able to outperform computers precisely because they didn't try all possible options one by one.
"One of the most distinctly human abilities is our ability to forget and to filter out information," he said. "And that's very important here because we have a problem that's just so complicated you will never be finished if you attack it systematically."
Frank Wilhelm-Mauch, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Saarbruecken who wasn't involved in the study, said the Danish scientists had found a way to exploit the way humans intuitively find solutions to fairly complex problems by simplifying them, thereby achieving a solution that might not be as mathematically perfect as that produced by a computer but definitely more practical.
"The work looks extremely solid and the solution is totally plausible," he said.
Wilhelm-Mauch said the results of the study would likely affect the entire field of quantum computing, because similar problems exist "like sand on a beach."
The Danish scientists are hoping to build on their existing work as word of the game and its contribution to quantum physics spreads, drawing in more players.
The effort might also be seen as a response to the setbacks human players have suffered against computers in more traditional games recently. Last month AlphaGo, a program developed by Google to play the ancient strategy game Go, won 4:1 matches against humans, chalking up another major victory for artificial intelligence.
"It's slightly encouraging that there are problems where we humans are still superior to computer algorithms," said Sherson.