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Professor with special responsibilities Jacob Sherson has a mission; he want to reinvent the way computers and humans interact. He’s reinvented himself a few times along the way, and today he says he’s a sort of version 3.0 of himself. The physicist has now been awarded the 2018 Grundfos Prize of DKK 1 mill. for his work on the interface between human and machine

[Translate to English:] Jacob Sherson er modtager af Grundfosprisen 2018. (Foto: Lars Kruse, AU Foto).
[Translate to English:] Jacob Sherson er modtager af Grundfosprisen 2018. (Foto: Lars Kruse, AU Foto).

Science research is easily perceived an exclusive party, with invitations for just the chosen few. To be invited you should preferably have a doctoral degree or two, and preferably within a very complex field. But what if there were some way in which everyone could be invited to the research so that everyone could help with the unique human approach to problem solving? Welcome to the absolute front line of quantum physics research, where  Professor with Special Responsibilities Jacob Sherson is the ‘host’.

His unique approach to interdisciplinary research, with elements from quantum physics, chemistry, cognitive analysis, psychology, computer game development and much more, has created a new research area and a fruitful vein within the branch of science called ‘citizen science’. By developing computer games with tasks and puzzles, the professor is opening laboratory doors and inviting everyone who wants to contribute inside.

This work has now earned Jacob Sherson the 2018 Grundfos Prize in recognition for his research within experimental quantum mechanics and his original initiatives to involve commonplace human problem-solving competences in scientific research. The prize totals DKK 1 mill., of which DKK 250,000 is a personal award, while the DKK 750,000 is awarded for further research.

"Jacob Sherson has been awarded the Grundfos Prize because he has uniquely managed to push the boundaries of experimental quantum mechanics while at the same time involving the human intuition in scientific research through his Citizen Science via Gamification initiative. The initiative also means that he is helping to break down the walls of the ivory tower and inviting us ordinary mortals to join in.

In 2017, the Foundation decided that the Grundfos Prize should focus on younger researchers for a period under the theme ‘Stars of Tomorrow’. Jacob will therefore be the first of a number of rising young stars in scientific and technical research to receive the Grundfos Prize," says Jens Bager, Chairman of the award committee and chairman of the board of the Poul Due Jensen Foundation, about the reasons for selecting Jacob Sherson for the 2018 award.

Sherson 1.0: teleportation
A young Jacob Sherson, took the research world by storm as a PhD student at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University when he managed to have 16 scientific articles published. And there was more: In 2006, Prof. Sherson also set the world record for teleportation, which is the transport of states in quantum systems over large distances.

"It was one of the first tentative steps towards what we hope could be quantum computers with almost unimaginable processing power and a new global quantum internet with rapid and guaranteed secure communication," recalls Jacob Sherson.

His work was mentioned as the most important experiment in physics by the American magazine, Science, in 2006.

Sherson 2.0: Colombus in quantum country
In 2011, Prof. Sherson came up with the idea to develop a game: he had absolutely no idea whether it would pay off, nor for that matter, did he have the know-how to develop it. His initial efforts took him more or less nowhere, except to a wealth of learning for the group.

However, the idea of developing games to explore quantum physics took hold, and over the years since then, the ScienceAtHome group has emerged, with Prof. Sherson as the core developer and research director, and the ‘Quantum Moves’ game has been played by more than 250,000 people from all over the world.

With the help from the game, in 2016 an article was accepted by the prestigious journal Nature showing that human intuition was superior to computer processing power. This article went around the world, with media coverage on every continent. Like a kind of Colombus in quantum country, Jacob Sherson and the group at AU created a map of how the human brain can make choices based on intuition and acquired experience.

"Players from all over the world have now played Quantum Moves and, to our great surprise, studies of their solutions have showed that human players search around possibilities very differently and more efficiently than conventional algorithms. How players without formal quantum physics training developed this quantum intuition, is an open and very interesting question," says Jacob Sherson.

Sherson 3.0: Citizen science and artificial intelligence
The next step for Jacob Sherson will be to rethink citizen science so that the approach opens up even more for input from ordinary people by incorporating even more elements in the games developed by the group. It was possible to experience one such game in a partnership with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation last September, when more than 10,000 Danes logged in to play "Skill Lab".

The background for the new approach is in artificial intelligence, which is undergoing rapid development all around the world. In Jacob Sherson's words, there is virtually no job that will not be affected by AI within just a few years, and almost not a day goes by without us hearing about new breakthroughs, and developments will only move faster in the future.

"The schism between human and artificial intelligence has developed enormously over the last two decades. We’re gradually being forced to rethink and specify the unique human intellect as computer algorithms learn to recognise images, to construct meaningful sentences based on the context of images, and even to recognise human emotions," says Jacob Sherson;

"Over the past years we’ve seen a worrying concentration of vast amounts of data at a few tech giants, who can now draw a remarkably accurate picture of us as consumers. This has engendered a democratic problem, because the many data-driven insights are not published freely. In response, we’re now extending our first social science citizen-science game to what we call a Social Science Super Collider (SSSC) infrastructure."

When Jacob Sherson looks back at his different versions, clear experience emerges for the young professor:

"99.9% of all research is about hard work every day, where we familiarise ourselves with what others have found out, add our small contribution, and then publish it so that other researchers can continue the process. It may sound less epic than the narrative of the lonely brilliant researcher, but being part of and contributing to this global community is actually an incredibly stimulating experience".

Professor with special responsibilities  Jacob Sherson,
Department of Physics and Astronomy,
Aarhus University
Mobile: +45 2877 5765,
Email:  sherson@phys.au.dk

Short extract from Jacob Sherson's CV:
2017: Appointed professor with special responsibilities (MSO) at the Department of Physics and Astronomy (AU).
2014: Establishes and runs  www.ScienceAtHome.org  and Centre for Community Driven Research (CODER) at IFA.
2011-2014: Assistant professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy (AU)
2006-2010: Postdoc positions at the Niels Bohr Institute, Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, and at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at AU. 
2002-2006: PhD student under Prof. Eugene S. Polzik, p. at the Niels Bohr Institute and Prof. Klaus Mølmer at Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Aarhus. PhD thesis published 11/2006: “Creation of Distant, Deterministic Entanglement: Experiment and Theory”.

Jacob Sherson was born in Vejle, Denmark in 1978 and he currently lives just outside Aarhus with his wife and their three children.