What started as a simple project for one graduate student’s elective class may well change the way you play a centuries-old board game.
Since its debut in the California Institute of Technology’s “Anyone Can Quantum” video, Quantum Chess (invented by USC graduate student Chris Cantwell), has been covered by news outlets from Popular Science to Time, attracting the interest of professional video game designers.
In its first week online, the short film — which features actor Paul Rudd (Marvel’s Ant Man) squaring off in a game of quantum chess against legendary physicist Stephen Hawking — racked up 1.5 million views on YouTube.
“It’s a surprise how quickly it’s happening and how well-received it is,” said Cantwell, who is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and a PhD in physics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
The game remains a prototype for the moment, but with the help of newly interested industry professionals and a Kickstarter campaign, Cantwell hopes to make it available to the public by February 2017.
Quantum Chess incorporates principles of quantum mechanics, such as superposition and entanglement, into regular chess gameplay. For example, a piece can exist in two places at the same time (superposition) until the player’s opponent observes the piece by moving another piece into one of the spaces that it might occupy, collapsing the quantum field and forcing it to exist in either one location or the other. And two pieces can become entangled when one piece tries to move through another that happens to be in superposition, joining their fates.
The ultimate goal of the game is to kill the opponent’s king, not to reach checkmate.
Cantwell’s road to USC began with a diving accident in 1998, which left him partially paralyzed. At the suggestion of one of his friends, he applied for a scholarship from Swim With Mike and started classes at USC the following year.
The Swim With Mike fundraiser, celebrating its 36th anniversary this April, has raised nearly $16 million for physically challenged athletes and provided scholarships to more than 180 recipients at USC and 90 other universities throughout the country.
Graduate school — particularly for Cantwell, who has had to take time off here and there for physical therapy — can be a long, drawn-out process.
The class that changed his life
In 2013, after years of taking program requirements and classes specific to his degrees, he found out about “Invention and Technology Development,” a course taught by Berok Khoshnevis. Though not a required course, it piqued his interest and, after some persuading by his girlfriend (now wife) Laurie, Cantwell enrolled.
Khoshnevis, famous for his invention of the Contour Crafting system of 3-D printing buildings, encouraged his students to create things that were both beautifully designed and useful. For his final project, Cantwell chose to design a game that would help members of the general public understand the focus of his career: quantum mechanics.
“So many people hear the word ‘quantum’ and are immediately scared,” Cantwell said. “But when you’re a child, you learn to throw a baseball, which shows you how classical physics work. It’s the same principle here. It’s not going to teach you quantum mechanics, but it will give you intuitive understanding.”
At first, Cantwell had bitten off a bit more than he could chew. The prototype of the game had to be scaled down to a five-by-five board with pieces that all moved the same way. After the class ended, Cantwell’s faculty adviser Todd Brun introduced him to Spiros Michalakis, a quantum physicist at Caltech.
“I showed him my prototype, and he was blown away by it,” Cantwell said.
Together, Michalakis and Cantwell workshopped the design until it came to resemble the Quantum Chess that you see Hawking and Rudd play in the Caltech video: a standard eight-by-eight chess board with all of the traditional pieces but a whole new twist to the gameplay.
Brun said that creating the Quantum Chess combined three major interests for Cantwell: quantum mechanics, computer science and making science accessible to the public.
“There’s a scare factor when the public hears ‘quantum physics.’ It sounds very abstruse and difficult,” Brun said. “It’s a very beautiful thing, but it’s very hard to convey that beauty without making people go through a lot of quantum mechanics classes first.”