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Q UA N T U M I N FO R M AT I O N T H E O RY

By K E V I N H A R T N E T T

March 5, 2019

A two-player game can reveal whether the universe has an in nite amount of complexity. 34

How many independent properties does the universe possess? A simple game might reveal the answer.

O

ne of the biggest and most basic questions in physics involves the number of ways to

con gure the matter in the universe. If you took all that matter and rearranged it, then

rearranged it again, then rearranged it again, would you ever exhaust the possible

con gurations, or could you go on recon guring forever?

Physicists don’t know, but in the absence of certain knowledge, they make assumptions. And those

assumptions di er depending on the area of physics they happen to be in. In one area they assume the

number of con gurations is nite. In another they assume it’s in nite. For now, at least, there’s no

way to tell who’s right.

But over the last couple years, a select group of mathematicians and computer scientists has been busy

creating games that could theoretically settle the question. The games involve two players placed in

isolation from each other. The players are asked questions, and they win if their answers are

coordinated in a certain way. In all of these games, the rate at which players win has implications for

the number of di erent ways the universe can be con gured.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-universes-ultimate-complexity-revealed-by-simple-quantum-games-20190305/?fbclid=IwAR0W3N9hP-1HN… 1/7

06/10/2019 The Universe’s Ultimate Complexity Revealed by Simple Quantum Games | Quanta Magazine

“There’s this philosophical question: Is the universe nite or in nite-dimensional?” said Henry Yuen,

a theoretical computer scientist at the University of Toronto. “People will think this is something you

can never test, but one possible way of resolving this is with a game like what William came up with.”

Yuen was referring to William Slofstra, a mathematician at the University of Waterloo. In 2016 Slofstra

invented a game that involves two players who assign values to variables in hundreds of simple

equations. Under normal circumstances even the most cunning players will sometimes lose. But

Slofstra proved that if you give them access to an in nite amount of an unorthodox resource —

entangled quantum particles — it becomes possible for the players to win this game all the time.

Other researchers have since re ned Slofstra’s result. They’ve proved that you don’t need a game with

hundreds of questions to reach the same conclusion Slofstra did. In 2017 three researchers proved that

there are games with just ve questions that can be won 100 percent of the time if the players have

access to an unlimited number of entangled particles.

These games are all modeled on games invented more than 50 years ago by the physicist John Stewart

Bell. Bell developed the games to test one of the strangest propositions about the physical world made

by the theory of quantum mechanics. A half-century later, his ideas may turn out to be useful for much

more than that.

Magic Squares

Bell came up with “nonlocal” games, which require players to be at a distance from each other with no

way to communicate. Each player answers a question. The players win or lose based on the

compatibility of their answers.

One such game is the magic square game. There are two players, Alice and Bob, each with a 3-by-3 grid.

A referee tells Alice to ll out one particular row in the grid — say the second row — by putting either a

1 or a 0 in each box, such that the sum of the numbers in that row is odd. The referee tells Bob to ll out

one column in the grid — say the rst column — by putting either a 1 or a 0 in each box, such that the

sum of the numbers in that column is even. Alice and Bob win the game if Alice’s numbers give an odd

sum, Bob’s give an even sum, and — most important — they’ve each written down the same number in

the one square where their row and column intersect.

Here’s the catch: Alice and Bob don’t know which row or column the other has been asked to ll out.

“It’s a game that would be trivial for the two players if they could communicate,” said Richard Cleve,

who studies quantum computing at the University of Waterloo. “But the fact that Alice doesn’t know

what question Bob was asked and vice versa means it’s a little tricky.”

https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-universes-ultimate-complexity-revealed-by-simple-quantum-games-20190305/?fbclid=IwAR0W3N9hP-1HN… 2/7

06/10/2019 The Universe’s Ultimate Complexity Revealed by Simple Quantum Games | Quanta Magazine

In the magic square game, and other games like it, there doesn’t seem to be a way for the players to win

100 percent of the time. And indeed, in a world completely explained by classical physics, 89 percent is

the best Alice and Bob could do.

But quantum mechanics — speci cally, the bizarre quantum phenomenon of “entanglement” —

allows Alice and Bob to do better.

In quantum mechanics, the properties of fundamental particles like electrons don’t exist until the

moment you measure them. Imagine, for example, an electron moving rapidly around the

circumference of a circle. To nd its position you perform a measurement. But prior to the

measurement, the electron has no de nite position at all. Instead, the electron is characterized by a

mathematical formula expressing the likelihood that it’s in any given position.

When two particles are entangled, the complex probability amplitudes that describe their properties

are intertwined. Imagine two electrons that were entangled such that if a measurement identi es the

rst electron in one position around the circle, the other must occupy a position directly across the

circle from it. This relationship between the two electrons holds when they’re right next to each other

and when they’re light-years apart: Even at that distance, if you measure the position of one electron,

the position of the other becomes instantly determined, even though no causal event has passed

between them.

The phenomenon seems preposterous because there’s nothing about our non-quantum-scale

experience to suggest such a thing is possible. Albert Einstein famously derided entanglement as

“spooky action at a distance” and argued for years that it couldn’t be true.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-universes-ultimate-complexity-revealed-by-simple-quantum-games-20190305/?fbclid=IwAR0W3N9hP-1HN… 3/7

06/10/2019 The Universe’s Ultimate Complexity Revealed by Simple Quantum Games | Quanta Magazine

To implement a quantum strategy in the magic square game, Alice and Bob each take one of a pair of

entangled particles. To determine which numbers to write down, they measure properties of their

particles — almost as if they were rolling correlated dice to guide their choice of answers.

John Stewart Bell conceived of nonlocal games as a way to test the reality of a bizarre quantum

phenomenon called entanglement.

CERN PhotoLab

What Bell calculated, and what many subsequent experiments have shown, is that by exploiting the

strange quantum correlations found in entanglement, players of games like the magic square game can

coordinate their answers with greater exactness and win the game more than 89 percent of the time.

Bell came up with nonlocal games as a way to show that entanglement was real, and that our classical

view of the world was incomplete — a conclusion that was very much up for grabs in Bell’s time. “Bell

came up with this experiment you could do in a laboratory,” Cleve said. If you recorded higher-than-

expected success rates in these experimental games, you’d know the players had to be exploiting some

feature of the physical world not explained by classical physics.

What Slofstra and others have done since then is similar in strategy, but di erent in scope. They’ve

shown that not only do Bell’s games imply the reality of entanglement, but some games have the power

https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-universes-ultimate-complexity-revealed-by-simple-quantum-games-20190305/?fbclid=IwAR0W3N9hP-1HN… 4/7

06/10/2019 The Universe’s Ultimate Complexity Revealed by Simple Quantum Games | Quanta Magazine

to imply a whole lot more — like whether there is any limit to the number of con gurations the

universe can take.

In his 2016 paper Slofstra proposed a kind of nonlocal game involving two players who provide answers

to simple questions. To win, they have to give responses that are coordinated in a certain way, as in the

magic square game.

Imagine, for example, a game that involves two players, Alice and Bob, who have to match socks from

their respective sock drawers. Each player has to choose a single sock, without any knowledge of the

sock the other has chosen. The players can’t coordinate ahead of time. If their sock choices form a

matching pair, they win.

Given these uncertainties it’s unclear which socks Alice and Bob should pick in the morning — at least

in a classical world. But if they can employ entangled particles they have a better chance of matching.

By basing their color choice on the results of measurements of a single pair of entangled particles they

could coordinate along that one attribute of their socks.

Yet they’d still be guessing blindly about all the other attributes — whether they were wool or cotton,

ankle-height or crew. But with additional entangled particles they’d get access to more measurements.

They could use one set to correlate their choice of material and another to correlate their choice of sock

height. In the end, because they were able to coordinate their choices for many attributes, they’d be

more likely to end up with a matching pair than if they’d only been able to coordinate for one.

“More complicated systems allow for more correlated measurements, which enable coordination at

more complicated tasks,” Slofstra said.

The questions in Slofstra’s game aren’t really about socks. They involve equations such as a + b + c and

b + c + d. Alice can make the value of each variable either 1 or 0 (and the values have to remain

consistent across the equations — b has to have the same value in every equation where it appears).

And her equations have to sum to various numbers.

Bob is given just one of Alice’s variables, say b, and asked to assign a value to it: 0 or 1. The players win

if they both assign the same value to whichever variable Bob is given.

If you and a friend were to play this game, there’s no way you could win it all the time. But with the aid

of a pair of entangled particles, you could win more consistently, as in the sock game.

Slofstra was interested in understanding whether there is an amount of entanglement past which a

team’s winning probability stops increasing. Perhaps players could achieve an optimal strategy if they

shared ve pairs of entangled particles, or 500. “We’d hoped you could say, ‘You need this much

entanglement to play it optimally,’” Slofstra said. “That’s not what is true.”

He found that adding more pairs of entangled particles always increased the winning percentage.

Moreover, if you could somehow exploit an in nite number of entangled particles, you would be able to

play the game perfectly, winning 100 percent of the time. This clearly can’t be done in a game with

socks — ultimately you’d run out of sock features to coordinate. But as Slofstra’s game has made clear,

the universe can be far knottier than a sock drawer.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-universes-ultimate-complexity-revealed-by-simple-quantum-games-20190305/?fbclid=IwAR0W3N9hP-1HN… 5/7

06/10/2019 The Universe’s Ultimate Complexity Revealed by Simple Quantum Games | Quanta Magazine

Slofstra’s result came as a shock. Eleven days after his paper appeared, the computer scientist Scott

Aaronson wrote that Slofstra’s result touches “on a question of almost metaphysical signi cance:

namely, what sorts of experimental evidence could possibly bear on whether the universe was discrete

or continuous?”

Aaronson was referring to the di erent states the universe can take — where a state is a particular

con guration of all the matter within it. Every physical system has its own state space, which is an

index of all the di erent states it can take.

PORTRAIT: Slofstra

William Slofstra, a mathematician at the University of Waterloo, invented a game with implications for

one of the most fundamental features of the universe.

Researchers talk about a state space as having a certain number of dimensions, re ecting the number

of independent characteristics you can adjust in the underlying system.

For example, even a sock drawer has a state space. Any sock might be described by its color, its length,

its material, and how raggedy and worn it is. In this case, the dimension of the sock drawer’s state

space is four.

A deep question about the physical world is whether there’s a limit to the size of the state space of the

universe (or of any physical system). If there is a limit, it means that no matter how large and

complicated your physical system is, there are still only so many ways it can be con gured. “The

question is whether physics allows there to be physical systems that have an in nite number of

properties that are independent of each other that you could in principle observe,” said Thomas Vidick,

a computer scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

The eld of physics is undecided on this point. In fact, it maintains two contradictory views.

On the one hand, students in an introductory quantum mechanics course are taught to think in terms

of in nite-dimensional state spaces. If they model the position of an electron moving around a circle,

https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-universes-ultimate-complexity-revealed-by-simple-quantum-games-20190305/?fbclid=IwAR0W3N9hP-1HN… 6/7

06/10/2019 The Universe’s Ultimate Complexity Revealed by Simple Quantum Games | Quanta Magazine

for instance, they’ll assign a probability to each point on the circle. Because there are in nite points,

the state space describing the electron’s position will be in nite-dimensional.

“In order to describe the system we need a parameter for every possible position the electron can be

in,” Yuen said. “There are in nitely many positions, so you need in nitely many parameters. Even in

one-dimensional space [like the circle], the state space of the particle is in nite-dimensional.”

But perhaps the idea of in nite-dimensional state spaces is nonsense. In the 1970s, the physicists

Jacob Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking calculated that a black hole is the most complicated physical

system in the universe, yet even its state can be speci ed by a huge but nite number of parameters —

approximately 1069 bits of information per square meter of the black hole’s event horizon. This

number — the “Bekenstein bound” — suggests that if a black hole doesn’t require an in nite-

dimensional state space, then nothing does.

These competing perspectives on state spaces re ect fundamentally di erent views about the nature of

physical reality. If state spaces are truly nite-dimensional, this means that at the smallest scale,

nature is pixelated. But if electrons require in nite-dimensional state spaces, physical reality is

fundamentally continuous — an unbroken sheet even at the nest resolution.

R E L AT E D :

So which is it? Physics hasn’t devised an answer, but games like Slofstra’s could, in principle, provide

one. Slofstra’s work suggests a way to test the distinction: Play a game that can only be won 100

percent of the time if the universe allows for in nite-dimensional state spaces. If you observe players

winning every time they play, it means they’re taking advantage of the kinds of correlations that can

only be generated through measurements on a physical system with an in nite number of

independently tunable parameters.

“He gives an experiment such that, if it can be realized, then we conclude the system that produced the

statistics that were observed must have in nite degrees of freedom,” Vidick said.

There are barriers to actually carrying out Slofstra’s experiment. For one thing, it’s impossible to

certify any laboratory result as occurring 100 percent of the time.

“In the real world you’re limited by your experimental setup,” Yuen said. “How do you distinguish

between 100 percent and 99.9999 percent?”

But practical considerations aside, Slofstra has shown that there is, mathematically at least, a way of

assessing a fundamental feature of the universe that might otherwise have seemed beyond our ken.

When Bell rst came up with nonlocal games, he hoped that they’d be useful for probing one of the

most beguiling phenomena in the universe. Fifty years later, his invention has proved to have even

more depth than that.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-universes-ultimate-complexity-revealed-by-simple-quantum-games-20190305/?fbclid=IwAR0W3N9hP-1HN… 7/7

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