The Quantum Moves Case
On this page you will find a short overview of the Quantum Moves Case, as well as links in the boxes below to FAQs about the Quantum Moves case (they will be regularly updated), a blog about the Nature paper retraction, and a timeline.
15 Nov 2021: Decision from the Danish Committee on Research Misconduct
Both scientific and more personal critics, the press and the AU Practice Committe have systematically oversimplified and misrepresented the case by combining a half sentence from the Nature-abstract with the public presentation of the project instead of reading and understanding the Nature-article in its entirety. My scientific arguments have been confirmed by a wide range of independent scientific quantum experts whose statements have, however, consistently been ignored.
Timeline of the Quantum Moves case
Short personal summary of events: This episode occurred on my personal journey from traditional quantum physics research to broad interdisciplinary investigations into the difference between and possible synergies of human and artificial intelligence. On the way, I have ventured into cross-disciplinary work, being driven by a fascination for the (to me) new fields and the shared excitement about the potential of combining several of them. I am personally driven by understanding and attacking big societal problems and both communicating to and involving the general public to the largest extent possible. In my current capacity as Director of the Center for Hybrid Intelligence, I often speak of the concrete research and the dreams of myself and my dozens of collaborators in different disciplines. I am starting to learn that my excitement for the interdisciplinary endeavors we are pursuing together has been interpreted by some as personal arrogance and lack of respect for the research traditions of the various scientific disciplines represented in our Center. This perception of my work is only coming to my attention now, years into the harrowing experience that I will describe below. To all of those, who have been scientifically insulted by my public appearances over the past years, I offer my deepest apologies. I had no idea that this was the perception and if someone had reached out to me with their honest perception earlier perhaps much of the personal animosity that I will detail below could have been avoided. I am a wiser person today, but the toll in getting here has been and continues to be quite high both professionally and personally for me as well as many of my younger colleagues…
The topic of this account is a citizen science game, Quantum Moves, which allowed the general public to contribute to finding solutions to research relevant quantum optimization challenges. The study was published in Nature in 2016 under world wide acclaim but in 2020 retracted due to the discovery of numerical errors in the utilized optimization code. The controversy is a complex saga involving questions of who said what and who knew what and when. At the heart of the debate lies the question, “what was the main scientific result of the Nature paper” - a surprising question as all four pages of the published paper have been publicly accessible since 2016.
In terms of the scientific importance of the sign error, our critics claim that the error invalidates the foundation of the entire study and subsequent line of research because they claim that the main result of our paper was the simple but extremely general statement “humans beat algorithms”. We do not feel that this claim makes sense, since we have in our own paper presented algorithms that clearly beat all players. Instead, we document in the paper two main results and an observation that players can outperform the particular algorithm. Our newly published Quantum Moves 2 paper shows that while the error did invalidate the observation and influence the magnitude of the effect of the two main findings (it is less pronounced than we originally thought/found), it did not alter the direction.
In other words, the main finding of the original (retracted) article has been upheld in subsequent studies. Irrespective of our differences of opinion, I welcome any scientific discussion of interpretations with my quantum physics colleagues. Whereas it has been painful to see this debate being championed by critics who have openly proclaimed to not have read or understood our paper, the most painful part of the ordeal has come from an entirely different corner.
In terms of the handling of the error, my ardent critics claim that my team and I have known about the error for years but concealed this knowledge (and perhaps even manufactured the error ourselves) in order to harvest as much acclaim on the erroneous results as possible. In the process we have been absolved of scientific misconduct and any intentional wrongdoing (both by an AU Practice Committee in 2020 and a National Committee in Nov. 2021) but convicted of questionable research practice for not handing over codes supposedly first requested in 2017 until late 2019. This three-year delay has caused outrage in the Danish media, general public and scientific community but the truth is not quite as black and white.
Both the AU Research Practice Committee and the AU leadership acknowledge that the “source code for the game” mentioned in 2017 was in fact not the erroneous scientific, analysis code but rather an outdated version of the game code used for gathering the data. His request came in conjunction with wanting to understand the x and y limits to the player movements. Since the requested Matlab code was outdated and did not even contain the relevant game challenge and the actual game code would require Unity game development experience to understand, I instead promptly and politely provided him with the necessary information and made an open invitation to further discussions. Since then, he never repeated any requests for code and I therefore firmly believed to have answered his request to his satisfaction. Still, the research practice committee reasoned in their verdict that we should have understood that the critical researcher in fact wanted the erroneous code since he “continued to criticize the numeric optimization method”. This is documentably wrong, since that researcher in his 2018 paper clearly writes that our algorithm is bound to fail by its construction (and not its error), because it does not incorporate a fancy trick that he had devised for his algorithm. In addition, in the period 2017-2018 the criticism of Sels was investigated by three sets of independent physics experts (a Nature peer review committee, a phd committee and the Faculty Research Practice advisor) and all three expressed serious criticism of the communication methods of Sels. So, we have been convicted of questionable research practice first by the committee and then in the court of the public opinion for not handing over a code that was never requested and for not being able to foresee that years later an error would be found that neither we, the critical researcher in question or a large set of independent physics experts suspected at the time. This is extremely unfair.
In july 2019 another researcher did in fact investigate the problem more thoroughly, requesting the erroneous analysis codes in the process. In this case, I accept full responsibility for the four month delay in getting the codes ready to be handed over. However, I stress that there is a world of a difference between the claimed three years of “arrogantly ignoring rightful criticism” as Berlingske Newspaper writes (backed by the erroneous Committee ruling) and a four month response time in an environment that the committee later stated was at this point “characterized by a scientific communication gone bad and that has created personal mistrust among the involved parties”.
In the period of controversy the size of my research center has diminished from roughly 20 full time employees to less than a handful. As a Director, it has been extremely painful to observe the shattering effect on so many young careers and personally it has led to stress-related health problems for me as well as large costs to my personal life. As the Research Practice ruling came in May ‘20, I found it extremely unfair but accepted it due to the promise of the AU leadership that the case was hereby closed. This did not happen. Instead the attacks were intensified resulting in the harsh accusations of conscious scientific misconduct put forth by my Three Colleagues at Physics. In Nov. ‘21 I was finally relieved to receive the full acquittal from the National Committee. There was indeed no indication of scientific misconduct! I drew a huge sigh of relief and happily informed my employees and close colleagues that the harrowing ordeal now finally seemed to have come to a conclusion and we could start to move on. Alas, again the relief was only short lived because short before christmas I was informed that my university would now try to see if the latest round of dirt-digging could potentially give rise to new accounts of questionable research practice on top of the old convictions. The latest investigations are supposedly set to end in January ‘22. Since there is not a shred of new evidence, I feel hopeful that the Committee will finally put an end to the case. For my latest report to the Committee Jan 10th, I have gathered statements from four independent quantum physics experts, who unanimously confirm that there is no indication in the written material that Dries Sels ever expressed concern about the validity of our numerical codes, and that Committee May ‘20 ruling therefore is obviously erroneous. In light of this new documentation, I hope that the Committee will agree to modify that part of their old verdict, so Berlingske and others no longer can use this ruling to back up their sharply pointed narrative.
Update Feb. '22: the committee acquitted me of further accounts of questionable research practice but frustratingly refused to heed the expert advice to ammend their old ruling. The case is thereby closed to everyone but me, because my personal nightmare just continues...