UChicago Lab Creates ‘Quantum Casino,’ a Win-Win to Educate and Inspire
How can integrating the arts with science and technology cultivate something new and unexpected? This question is one that Nancy Kawalek has been answering in several ways throughout her career – most recently, with a suite of engaging games focused on teaching the principles of quantum science and engineering.
Kawalek, a professionally trained actor, brings her unique perspective from a background in theater to explore the myriad possibilities of a different stage: Scientists, Technologists, and Artists Generating Exploration.
Aptly shortened to “STAGE,” the collective laboratory was initially launched by Kawalek during her time at the California Nanosystems Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Today, it is embedded in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago where Kawalek is a professor and Distinguished Fellow in Arts, Science, and Technology.
A true testament to the interdisciplinary tenant on which the PME was established, Kawalek was encouraged to expand her work at UChicago by a former UCSB colleague, Matthew Tirrell, who has been the dean of PME since 2011. Her team includes distinguished scientists, engineers, professional actors, technology experts, students, and diverse theatrical, visual, media, and performing artists.
“At that time I had no idea that the University of Chicago would be such a good place, that the fit was just right,” said Kawalek, who stressed that the aim is to explore how to get people to think and work in new ways, in addition to getting them excited about science.
“Importantly, we are never going to get everyone excited about science just by sharing the facts. We’ve seen this happen in such a bold way recently. I believe the only way to engage the general public in the sciences is to grab them emotionally. And I think the way to do that is always with a good story,” said Kawalek. “It’s critical that we move people or entertain them – and that’s what the games do.”
The Quantum Casino
A betting card game for two to seven players, Chicago Quant’em is based on the popular poker variant Texas Hold’em. The experiential game immerses players in the world of quantum physics and qubits.
With these concepts – superposition, entanglement, operations, and measurement – built into the game mechanics, the goal is to collect, change, and arrange the cards into a winning hand. Cards and colors are used to represent these complex ideas. As one example, having “more entanglement” in the game is better because more entangled qubits are desirable in quantum applications.
For Kawalek, it has been gratifying to see the games out in the world and being enjoyed by a diverse range of players. The STAGE team debuted the games at the 2022 American Physical Society (APS) Annual Meeting and featured them later that year at the South Side Science Festival – where five- and ten-year-olds sat down with the game. “It’s amazing when you can create something that really spans all ages and levels of education,” Kawalek said.
In six months, Kawalek and her team, including more than 40 students, created three card games with custom decks and three digital games. The project is aptly called the Quantum Casino and also includes a Quantum Photo Booth, which is used to aid in explaining quantum key distribution, a mechanism for sharing encryption keys between remote parties.
The work drew from three important research papers: “Quantum Poker: a game for quantum computers suitable for benchmarking error mitigation techniques on NISQ devices”; “Quantum blackjack: advantages offered by quantum strategies in communication-limited games”; and “Investigation of quantum roulette.”
But why quantum specifically? Kawalek wants more people to engage with quantum science and engineering – an area that promises to provide growing opportunities and jobs, including many that don’t require a PhD. “To know that you can get some training and have a job that is interesting and that pays well… it’s a huge opportunity to level the playing field for a large swath of the population who might never think they could engage with science, or be a scientist,” she explained.
This approach means making the games accessible to schools and teachers. “You really can’t make an impact unless your work is out in the world,” said Kawalek, who is collaborating with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to commercialize and patent the Quantum Casino games. “We are eager to reach as many people as possible. If you can engage a few people, and they start to talk to others, it creates a ripple effect.”
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// Polsky Patented is a column highlighting research and inventions from University of Chicago faculty. For more information about available technologies, click here.