Author & futurist writing about QC, AI & other interesting things
When I think of nostalgia, I don’t think about the internet or playing soccer with my friends or watching The A-Team on TV on a Saturday afternoon. Nostalgia, and I’m talking about the pure kind, was playing computer games. Back in 1985 or ‘86, my grandfather bought me a second-hand Amstrad CPC 64k personal computer. It was a machine that I cherished for many years until I dropped it one day.
Back then, when The Goonies movie hit the theatres, Duran Duran was dominating the airwaves and the Cold War threatened world peace, I remember sitting in front of my PC for hours playing games like Yie Ar Kung-Fu, Chuckie Egg, Ghostbusters and who can forget Bruce Lee?
‘I recently learned something quite interesting about video games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The air force believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.’
— Ronald Reagan, 1983
My parents, Luddites then and Luddites now, were forever looking at me in front of the black curiosity with a green-screen monitor that had taken their son’s attention away and stopped him from doing his chores and homework on a regular basis.
Yippee, I thought.
Before I’d fallen in love with computers, though (or more importantly computer games), I’d been an avid reader. I’d read a book or two a week: The Underground Railway, Black Beauty, Animal Farm. Young adult stuff and enough history books to keep me occupied for eternity. Computer games took all that away, at least for the most part of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Then I became an adult and got my reading mojo back. But the nostalgia of those times has stayed with me.
As a fan of popular culture, I can see now how computers and the geek culture have contributed to that genre immeasurably. Without companies like Atari and people like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, maybe the world of tech would have been delayed by a decade or two — or at the very least a few years — leaving my childhood a cold, black-hole-like vacuum without the mesmeric attraction of prehistoric pixels on the monitor screen and the three-minute orchestration of beeps and screeches as the game loaded up in the cassette player.
What would life have been like then?
Let’s not talk about it.
Since the massive machines of the early years of the computer dawn in the 60s came about in university campuses, controlled by people in dickie-bows, horned-rimmed glasses and an awkward fashion sense, there has been an exponential growth in their power and ability to entertain. At first, they were expensive and out of reach to the pockets of your average teenager (and their parents). But then things changed by the end of the 1970s. The democratization of computing began.
The PC was born.
The game consoles, too.
And then there were the games that came with them. They were a gamechanger. They created a social ambiance between machine and user. Playing them became a social event, a way of making friends and bonding.
Okay, they had a serious angle, too, like for hacking. Who can forget 1983’s WarGames with a youthful Matthew Broderick as lead — for me at least, it was the catalyst for my very brief career as a hacker when one of my more tech-savvy friends, who owned a ZX Spectrum, got hold of a modem. We were no hackers and connected neither to the WOPR supercomputer or any other for that matter.
Retirement came early.
The ways the technological landscape changed in the 1980s was unbelievable.
‘I burned through all of my extra lives in a matter of minutes, and my two least-favorite words appeared on the screen: GAME OVER.’
— Ernest Cline
Roll on thirty-five years or so, and those computers seem funny in 2019. Sixty-four K of processing power won’t do a fart today but back then it was impressive enough. Moore’s Law has been good to computers. But it’s had its time.
There’s a new shift in power that will alter the technological world irrevocably.
The chronological line from those first games to the Web was a massive step. Yet now we are moving into a new realm, one far from what most people can get their heads around, quantum computing.
With it, the era that I remember so fondly is disappearing. That is not to say video games are a thing of the past. No — the games industry is growing, with the market set to to be worth more than 90 billion U.S. dollars by the year 2020, from nearly 78.61 billion in 2017, according to reports from Best The News.
Yet what will they look like in the future?
You’ve switched on your quantum computer, a work of art if ever you’ve seen one — not quite a Michelangelo as a piece of art, but not far off. More verging on the creativity of a Jony Ives of Apple fame. But sorry, you haven’t ‘switched on’ but ‘done’ whatever you have to do to gain access to it.
You’ve got a powerful machine, too, ten, twenty, maybe even fifty superconducting quantum bits that are in the processor.
But who’s counting?
It’s cold, too, chillingly so, at almost absolute zero, technically zero kelvin — that’s roughly minus 273 Celsius if you’re a European or minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit if you’re stateside.
Again, who’s counting?
Certainly not me.
Well, you’re all ready to play and you press the start button (if there’s a start button).
This is a quantum computer. It’s here to solve all the problems the classical computer can’t.
But how does it work?
Tiny particles, of the quantum world, have replaced the binary system of ones and zeros. Computer logic has been erased. A new modality has come into its place.
Although scientists are trying to create games for these promising machines that add up at the moment to coin flipping and other simple probabilistic games, in the future computer scientists and physicists aspire to fashion games which not only offer visceral entertainment for the user, but also give them the chance to move around in an AI world as real as the one they live in.
Already there are companies which have started putting out basic quantum computers possessing a minimum number of qubit power. Unfortunately, these machines are susceptible to errors at the moment. Giants like Google, Intel, IBM and Microsoft lead the way with their billion-dollar budgets and worldwide influence. Yet there are other companies, with minute budgets in comparison but with no less ambition like Rigetti, IonQ and D-Wave which believe their systems are just as good.
This battle of corporations versus the indie clan in quantum computers will be interesting. The contest for the first one to understand the difficult physics behind how the quantum world operates won’t be solved any time soon. However, just the idea that there are researchers and companies trying to change the status quo is exciting.
We shouldn’t scold the constructing of simple probabilistic games because at least it’s a start, just like the early computer programmers in the mid-20th century started with their games: Josef Kates’ Bertie the Brain, recorded as the first ever computer game in 1950, led us to Pong, which brought us to Return to Castle Wolfenstein in the early noughties and then to Red Dead Redemption 2, in 2018.
First of all, a classical computer can’t factor very large numbers. Additionally, they’re not the best at simulating the behaviour of subatomic particles, as this operation would need too many binary ‘bits’ to pull it off.
Quantum computers, meanwhile, could solve these problems (or are they not problems to them but mere trifles) using qubits, which are basically quantum bits.
Qubits work, not like regular bits — which operate in the binary system of 0 and 1 — but somewhere in between, in what is called in quantum theory parlance ‘superposition’ This means, in essence, that they can be both 0 and 1 at the same time, or partly both.
That’s what Einstein thought, too.
But there’s more — ‘entanglement’, that’s when two qubits, separated by spatial reality, can somehow influence each other no matter how far away they are from each other.
Now that’s The Conjuring kinda spooky!
With this system, quantum computers will be able to factor very high numbers in a much shorter time than even the most powerful supercomputers we have today. Moreover, they will — in theory at least — replicate how atoms interconnect with each other, which could help us create new molecules, or even, unbelievably, new materials never before seen on earth.
In artificial intelligence (AI), too, the prospects look good, with companies researching how quantum computers could improve and enhance AI.
Unfortunately, though, the realization of these things is in the distance, as quantum computers are still at the elementary stage of development.
One of the fundamental flaws of quantum computers is with the qubits themselves. Sadly, qubits are very sensitive things and any interference from external factors can deprive them of their quantum essence, which turns them into normal bits.
This hasn’t stopped computer scientists creating simple games for the machines, though.
Dr James Wootton, a Research Staff Member at the Zurich Research Laboratory, an employee of IBM and fellow writer on all things quantum computers on Medium, has created a game called Decodoku, which is an early game based on quantum error correction theory, though it was made on a classical computer. It is a simple game to play. Quantum Battleships is yet another game by the British physicist, again rudimentary in its application but like Decodoku, it’s a start.
‘I do not like it, and I am sorry I ever had anything to do with it.’
— Erwin Schrödinger
One more game, or rather ‘experience’, is Quantum Experience, by Wootton’s employer, IBM, which enables people to write their own programs on its five-qubit computer. To do it, so IBM states, users do not need a science degree nor any substantial knowledge of quantum physics.
That counts me in, then.
These text-based games are only the beginning of something that, one day, will be big news.
Text-based games are all well and good, but what is the future of video games when the technology of quantum principles is relatively advanced enough to head into that direction?
Most in the industry believe classical computers will still carry out the donkey work of the video game interface like graphics, sound and movement, while quantum computers could quite possibly, if predictions are correct, enhance the physics engine of the games and mechanics of movement, giving the visualization of the experience a more visceral feel.
In actual gameplay, however, quantum principles could add weirdness to games never seen before, such as characters or adversaries who can, quite strangely, act out their quantum ability to be in two places simultaneously, or existing and not, influencing each other through entanglement and behaving against the laws of space and time.
Randomness, it seems, goes hand in hand with video games and how they play out. Perceptive gamers, however, quite often after playing a game many times, begin to see patterns of behaviour within the game’s processor algorithm that are not so arbitrary, detracting from the ultimate randomness and ultimately, the gameplay experience.
‘Quantum mechanics makes absolutely no sense.’
— Roger Penrose
Adding quantum principles to a game’s algorithms could truly create random gameplay, and add never-before-seen playable environments and infinitely unique character behaviour.
Yet it’s all supposition, and who really knows?
One thing that isn’t supposition, though, is to reach this point it will take a lot of hard work and harnessing the intelligence of people in the industry, getting companies like Rigetti, IBM and others to work together in focussing their efforts on improving quantum algorithms.
Up to now, all the talk — and quite rightly so, too — has been about the software challenges. Still, the conundrum of hardware and the complexities we could face building it, cannot be ignored.
Qubit power — and what would be needed to outperform the operational efficiency of classical computers — is another area of some contention between experts in the industry. The standard amount bandied about by most is fifty qubits, though it has been reported that a quantum machine of at least 1,000 qubits is the optimal amount to accommodate inbuilt errors within the system. We even have a claim — outlandish, no doubt — by Vancouver-based D-Wave of a fully-operational 5000-qubit computer by 2020. To achieve this number of qubits is going to take a superhuman effort. If Norishige Morimoto’s — global vice-president of IBM — thoughts of a global ‘quantum supremacy’ are to be realized soon, time is running out.
Whatever happens, the future of video games and how they evolve will be an interesting one. With quantum computers’ ongoing development, and computer scientists and quantum theorists working flat out to evolve the discipline, exciting times are certainly ahead.
The Joker controlled by quantum mechanics? Sounds interesting, if a little unfair for gamers.
Don’t think I’m gonna beat him, though!