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How citizen scientists collectively solve complex, natural science problems

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Posted November 30, 2018

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Aarhus University have developed a remote interface to control a quantum gas experiment and are starting to unravel how citizen scientists solve complex, natural science problems. Their study has just been published in the prestigious journal PNAS: https://www.pnas.org/content/115/48/E11231

Citizen scientists cool down atoms

The study is based on a collaboration across faculties at AU bringing together social scientists from the Department of Management (BSS) and physicists and game designers from ScienceAtHome (Department of Physics and Astronomy, ST). This research was made possible by a unique setup where citizen scientists attempted to solve a real, high-dimensional physics problem: How to cool down atoms to just above absolute zero at -273.15°C.

Via a game-interface participants had live, remote access to an ultra-cold quantum gas experiment in a physics lab at Aarhus University. Citizen scientists could create a so-called Bose-Einstein condensate, which is a distinct state of matter (like solid, liquid, gas or plasma) that constitutes an ideal candidate for performing quantum simulation experiments and high-precision measurements.

Image credit: Aarhus University

Image credit: Aarhus University

An interdisciplinary collaboration

Professor Jacob Sherson, Department of Physics and Astronomy (Aarhus University) points out: “Numerous citizen science projects have shown that citizen scientists can compete with state-of-the-art physicists and algorithms when solving complex, natural science problems. However, these projects have so far not addressed why a collective of citizen scientists can solve these complex problems. The desire to answer this question led us to the collaboration between physics and social scientists.”

This opportunity to collaborate was facilitated by the Committee for Research and External Cooperation at Aarhus University, who offered an AU network grant to cross-faculty collaborations such as these.

Associate Professor Carsten Bergenholtz, Department of Management (Aarhus University) remarks: “I found it fascinating to contribute to such an inter-disciplinary project, where the scientific value gained in each field (physics and social science) is so strongly intertwined. Physicists learned about how to optimise cooling down atoms – a challenge relevant for building a quantum computer – while we as social scientists gained valuable insight into collective problem solving by analysing how citizen scientists tried to cool down these atoms via the game interface.”

Comparing citizen scientists with computer algorithms

Results show that citizen scientists both engaged in local (exploitation) and global (exploration) search, depending on the performance feedback one got from the experiment. The better one did, the more local one’s search (small changes), and the worse one did, the more global one searches (big changes). This leads to a collective of people that effectively balances local and global search.

Furthermore, and maybe most importantly, the researchers were able to compare the search behaviour of citizen scientists with a state-of-the-art numerical algorithm employed by physicists. Interestingly, the computer algorithmic search was much more local in nature, focusing on small steps to iteratively improve the current solution instead of broadly searching the overall landscape.

The study illustrates how the creation of new game interfaces can enable others, both experts and citizen scientists, to see the inherently complex problem in a new way. In the future, insight into human search strategies can hopefully facilitate development of hybrid intelligence leading to more sophisticated computer algorithms.

Source: Aarhus University

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