Archive for the ‘Quantum’ Category

MIP*=RE

Tuesday, January 14th, 2020

Another Update (Jan. 16): Yet another reason to be excited about this result—one that somehow hadn’t occurred to me—is that, as far as I know, it’s the first-ever fully convincing example of a non-relativizing computability result. See this comment for more.

Update: If you’re interested in the above topic, then you should probably stop reading this post right now, and switch to this better post by Thomas Vidick, one of the authors of the new breakthrough. (Or this by Boaz Barak or this by Lance Fortnow or this by Ken Regan.) (For background, also see Thomas Vidick’s excellent piece for the AMS Notices.)

Still here? Alright, alright…

Here’s the paper, which weighs in at 165 pages. The authors are Zhengfeng Ji, Anand Natarajan, my former postdoc Thomas Vidick, John Wright (who will be joining the CS faculty here at UT Austin this fall), and my wife Dana’s former student Henry Yuen. Rather than pretending that I can provide intelligent commentary on this opus in the space of a day, I’ll basically just open my comment section to discussion and quote the abstract:

We show that the class MIP* of languages that can be decided by a classical verifier interacting with multiple all-powerful quantum provers sharing entanglement is equal to the class RE of recursively enumerable languages. Our proof builds upon the quantum low-degree test of (Natarajan and Vidick, FOCS 2018) by integrating recent developments from (Natarajan and Wright, FOCS 2019) and combining them with the recursive compression framework of (Fitzsimons et al., STOC 2019).
An immediate byproduct of our result is that there is an efficient reduction from the Halting Problem to the problem of deciding whether a two-player nonlocal game has entangled value 1 or at most 1/2. Using a known connection, undecidability of the entangled value implies a negative answer to Tsirelson’s problem: we show, by providing an explicit example, that the closure Cqa of the set of quantum tensor product correlations is strictly included in the set Cqc of quantum commuting correlations. Following work of (Fritz, Rev. Math. Phys. 2012) and (Junge et al., J. Math. Phys. 2011) our results provide a refutation of Connes’ embedding conjecture from the theory of von Neumann algebras.

To say it differently (in response to a commenter’s request), some of the major implications are as follows.

(1) There is a protocol by which two entangled provers can convince a polynomial-time verifier of the answer to any computable problem whatsoever (!!), or indeed that a given Turing machine halts.

(2) There is a two-prover game, analogous to the Bell/CHSH game, for which Alice and Bob can do markedly better with a literally infinite amount of entanglement than they can with any finite amount of entanglement.

(3) There is no algorithm even to approximate the entangled value of a two-prover game (i.e., the probability that Alice and Bob win the game, if they use the best possible strategy and as much entanglement as they like). Instead, this problem is equivalent to the halting problem.

(4) There are types of correlations between Alice and Bob that can be produced using infinite entanglement, but that can’t even be approximated using any finite amount of entanglement.

(5) The Connes embedding conjecture, a central conjecture from the theory of operator algebras dating back to the 1970s, is false.

Note that all of these implications—including the ones for pure math and the foundations of quantum physics—were obtained using tools that originated in theoretical computer science, specifically the study of interactive proof systems.

I can remember when the class MIP* was first defined and studied, back around 2003, and people made the point that we didn’t know any reasonable upper bound on the class’s power—not NEXP, not NEEEEXP, not even the set of all computable languages. Back then, the joke was how far our proof techniques were from what was self-evidently the truth. I don’t remember a single person who seriously contemplated that two entangled provers could convince a polynomial-time verifier than an arbitrary Turing machine halts.

Still, ever since Natarajan and Wright’s NEEXP in MIP* breakthrough last year, all of us in quantum computing theory knew that MIP*=RE was a live possibility—and all through the summer and fall, I heard many hints that such a breakthrough was imminent.

It’s worth pointing out that, with only classical correlations between the provers, MIP gives “merely” the power of NEXP (Nondeterministic Exponential Time), while with arbitrary non-signalling correlations between the provers, the so-called MIPns gives the power of EXP (Deterministic Exponential Time). So it’s particularly striking that quantum entanglement, which is “intermediate” between classical correlations and arbitrary non-signalling correlations, yields such wildly greater computational power than either of those two.

The usual proviso applies: when I’ve blogged excitedly about preprints with amazing new results, most have stood, but at least two ended up being retracted. Still, assuming this one stands (as I’m guessing it will), I regard it as easily one of the biggest complexity-theoretic (and indeed computability-theoretic!) surprises so far in this century. Huge congratulations to the authors on what looks to be a historic achievement.

In unrelated news, for anyone for whom the 165-page MIP* paper is too heavy going (really??), please enjoy this CNBC video on quantum computing, which features several clips of yours truly speaking in front of a fake UT tower.

In other unrelated news, I’m also excited about this preprint by Avishay Tal, which sets a new record for the largest known separation between quantum query complexity and classical randomized query complexity, making substantial progress toward proving a conjecture by me and Andris Ambainis from 2015. (Not the “Aaronson-Ambainis Conjecture,” a different conjecture.)

Quantum computing motte-and-baileys

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

In the wake of two culture-war posts—the first on the term “quantum supremacy,” the second on the acronym “NIPS”—it’s clear that we all need to cool off with something anodyne and uncontroversial. Fortunately, this holiday season, I know just the thing to bring everyone together: groaning about quantum computing hype!

When I was at the Q2B conference in San Jose, I learned about lots of cool stuff that’s happening in the wake of Google’s quantum supremacy announcement. I heard about the 57-qubit superconducting chip that the Google group is now building, following up on its 53-qubit one; and also about their first small-scale experimental demonstration of my certified randomness protocol. I learned about recent progress on costing out the numbers of qubits and gates needed to do fault-tolerant quantum simulations of useful chemical reactions (IIRC, maybe a hundred thousand qubits and a few hours’ worth of gates—scary, but not Shor’s algorithm scary).

I also learned about two claims about quantum algorithms that startups have made, and which are being wrongly interpreted. The basic pattern is one that I’ve come to know well over the years, and which you could call a science version of the motte-and-bailey. (For those not up on nerd blogosphere terminology: in medieval times, the motte was a dank castle to which you’d retreat while under attack; the bailey was the desirable land that you’d farm once the attackers left.)

To wit:

  1. Startup makes claims that have both a true boring interpretation (e.g., you can do X with a quantum computer), as well as a false exciting interpretation (e.g., you can do X with a quantum computer, and it would actually make sense to do this, because you’ll get an asymptotic speedup over the best known classical algorithm).
  2. Lots of business and government people get all excited, because they assume the false exciting interpretation must be true (or why else would everyone be talking about this?). Some of those people ask me for comment.
  3. I look into it, perhaps by asking the folks at the startup. The startup folks clarify that they meant only the true boring interpretation. To be sure, they’re actively exploring the false exciting interpretation—whether some parts of it might be true after all—but they’re certainly not making any claims about it that would merit, say, a harsh post on Shtetl-Optimized.
  4. I’m satisfied to have gotten to the bottom of things, and I tell the startup folks to go their merry way.
  5. Yet many people continue to seem as excited as if the false exciting interpretation had been shown to be true. They continue asking me questions that presuppose its truth.

Our first instance of this pattern is the recent claim, by Zapata Computing, to have set a world record for integer factoring (1,099,551,473,989 = 1,048,589 × 1,048,601) with a quantum computer, by running a QAOA/variational algorithm on IBM’s superconducting device. Gosh! That sure sounds a lot better than the 21 that’s been factored with Shor’s algorithm, doesn’t it?

I read the Zapata paper that this is based on, entitled “Variational Quantum Factoring,” and I don’t believe that a single word in it is false. My issue is something the paper omits: namely, that once you’ve reduced factoring to a generic optimization problem, you’ve thrown away all the mathematical structure that Shor’s algorithm cleverly exploits, and that makes factoring asymptotically easy for a quantum computer. And hence there’s no reason to expect your quantum algorithm to scale any better than brute-force trial division (or in the most optimistic scenario, trial division enhanced with Grover search). On large numbers, your algorithm will be roundly outperformed even by classical algorithms that do exploit structure, like the Number Field Sieve. Indeed, the quantum computer’s success at factoring the number will have had little or nothing to do with its being quantum at all—a classical optimization algorithm would’ve served as well. And thus, the only reasons to factor a number on a quantum device in this way, would seem to be stuff like calibrating the device.

Admittedly, to people who work in quantum algorithms, everything above is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be said. But I learned at Q2B that there are interested people for whom this is not obvious, and even comes as a revelation. So that’s why I’m saying it.

Again and again over the past twenty years, I’ve seen people reinvent the notion of a “simpler alternative” to Shor’s algorithm: one that cuts out all the difficulty of building a fault-tolerant quantum computer. In every case, the trouble, typically left unstated, has been that these alternatives also cut out the exponential speedup that’s Shor’s algorithm’s raison d’être.

Our second example today of a quantum computing motte-and-bailey is the claim, by Toronto-based quantum computing startup Xanadu, that Gaussian BosonSampling can be used to solve all sorts of graph problems, like graph isomorphism, graph similarity, and densest subgraph. As the co-inventor of BosonSampling, few things would warm my heart more than finding an actual application for that model (besides quantum supremacy experiments and, perhaps, certified random number generation). But I still regard this as an open problem—if by “application,” we mean outperforming what you could’ve done classically.

In papers (see for example here, here, here), members of the Xanadu team have given all sorts of ways to take a graph, and encode it into an instance of Gaussian BosonSampling, in such a way that the output distribution will then reveal features of the graph, like its isomorphism type or its dense subgraphs. The trouble is that so far, I’ve seen no indications that this will actually lead to quantum algorithms that outperform the best classical algorithms, for any graph problems of practical interest.

In the case of Densest Subgraph, the Xanadu folks use the output of a Gaussian BosonSampler to seed (that is, provide an initial guess for) a classical local search algorithm. They say they observe better results this way than if they seed that classical local search algorithm with completely random initial conditions. But of course, the real question is: could we get equally good results by seeding with the output of some classical heuristic? Or by solving Densest Subgraph with a different approach entirely? Given how hard it’s turned out to be just to verify that the outputs of a BosonSampling device come from such a device at all, it would seem astonishing if the answer to these questions wasn’t “yes.”

In the case of Graph Isomorphism, the situation is even clearer. There, the central claim made by the Xanadu folks is that given a graph G, they can use a Gaussian BosonSampling device to sample a probability distribution that encodes G’s isomorphism type. So, isn’t this “promising” for solving GI with a quantum computer? All you’d need to do now is invent some fast classical algorithm that could look at the samples coming from two graphs G and H, and tell you whether the probability distributions were the same.

Except, not really. While the Xanadu paper never says so, if all you want is to sample a distribution that encodes a graph’s isomorphism type, that’s easy to do classically! (I even put this on the final exam for my undergraduate Quantum Information Science course a couple weeks ago.) Here’s how: given as input a graph G, just output G but with its vertices randomly permuted. Indeed, this will even provide a further property, better than anything the BosonSampling approach has been shown to provide (or than it probably does provide): namely, if G and H are not isomorphic, then the two probability distributions will not only be different but will have disjoint supports. Alas, this still leaves us with the problem of distinguishing which distribution a given sample came from, which is as hard as Graph Isomorphism itself. None of these approaches, classical or quantum, seem to lead to any algorithm that’s subexponential time, let alone competitive with the “Babai approach” of thinking really hard about graphs.

All of this stuff falls victim to what I regard as the Fundamental Error of Quantum Algorithms Research: namely, to treat it as “promising” that a quantum algorithm works at all, or works better than some brute-force classical algorithm, without asking yourself whether there are any indications that your approach will ever be able to exploit interference of amplitudes to outperform the best classical algorithm.

Incidentally, I’m not sure exactly why, but in practice, a major red flag that the Fundamental Error is about to be committed is when someone starts talking about “hybrid quantum/classical algorithms.” By this they seem to mean: “outside the domain of traditional quantum algorithms, so don’t judge us by the standards of that domain.” But I liked the way someone at Q2B put it to me: every quantum algorithm is a “hybrid quantum/classical algorithm,” with classical processors used wherever they can be, and qubits used only where they must be.

The other thing people do, when challenged, is to say “well, admittedly we have no rigorous proof of an asymptotic quantum speedup”—thereby brilliantly reframing the whole conversation, to make people like me look like churlish theoreticians insisting on an impossible and perhaps irrelevant standard of rigor, blind to some huge practical quantum speedup that’s about to change the world. The real issue, of course, is not that they haven’t given a proof of a quantum speedup (in either the real world or the black-box world); rather, it’s that they’ve typically given no reasons whatsoever to think that there might be a quantum speedup, compared to the best classical algorithms available.

In the holiday spirit, let me end on a positive note. When I did the Q&A at Q2B—the same one where Sarah Kaiser asked me to comment on the term “quantum supremacy”—one of my answers touched on the most important theoretical open problems about sampling-based quantum supremacy experiments. At the top of the list, I said, was whether there’s some interactive protocol by which a near-term quantum computer can not only exhibit quantum supremacy, but prove it to a polynomial-time-bounded classical skeptic. I mentioned that there was one proposal for how to do this, in the IQP model, due to Bremner and Shepherd, from way back in 2008. I said that their proposal deserved much more attention than it had received, and that trying to break it would be one obvious thing to work on. Little did I know that, literally while I was speaking, a paper was being posted to the arXiv, by Gregory Kahanamoku-Meyer, that claims to break Bremner and Shepherd’s protocol. I haven’t yet studied the paper, but assuming it’s correct, it represents the first clear progress on this problem in years (even though of a negative kind). Cool!!

Quantum Dominance, Hegemony, and Superiority

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

Yay! I’m now a Fellow of the ACM. Along with my fellow new inductee Peter Shor, who I hear is a real up-and-comer in the quantum computing field. I will seek to use this awesome responsibility to steer the ACM along the path of good rather than evil.

Also, last week, I attended the Q2B conference in San Jose, where a central theme was the outlook for practical quantum computing in the wake of the first clear demonstration of quantum computational supremacy. Thanks to the folks at QC Ware for organizing a fun conference (full disclosure: I’m QC Ware’s Chief Scientific Advisor). I’ll have more to say about the actual scientific things discussed at Q2B in future posts.

None of that is why you’re here, though. You’re here because of the battle over “quantum supremacy.”

A week ago, my good friend and collaborator Zach Weinersmith, of SMBC Comics, put out a cartoon with a dark-curly-haired scientist named “Dr. Aaronson,” who’s revealed on a hot mic to be an evil “quantum supremacist.” Apparently a rush job, this cartoon is far from Zach’s finest work. For one thing, if the character is supposed to be me, why not draw him as me, and if he isn’t, why call him “Dr. Aaronson”? In any case, I learned from talking to Zach that the cartoon’s timing was purely coincidental: Zach didn’t even realize what a hornet’s-nest he was poking with this.

Ever since John Preskill coined it in 2012, “quantum supremacy” has been an awkward term. Much as I admire John Preskill’s wisdom, brilliance, generosity, and good sense, in physics as in everything else—yeah, “quantum supremacy” is not a term I would’ve coined, and it’s certainly not a hill I’d choose to die on. Once it had gained common currency, though, I sort of took a liking to it, mostly because I realized that I could mine it for dark one-liners in my talks.

The thinking was: even as white supremacy was making its horrific resurgence in the US and around the world, here we were, physicists and computer scientists and mathematicians of varied skin tones and accents and genders, coming together to pursue a different and better kind of supremacy—a small reflection of the better world that we still believed was possible. You might say that we were reclaiming the word “supremacy”—which, after all, just means a state of being supreme—for something non-sexist and non-racist and inclusive and good.

In the world of 2019, alas, perhaps it was inevitable that people wouldn’t leave things there.

My first intimation came a month ago, when Leonie Mueck—someone who I’d gotten to know and like when she was an editor at Nature handling quantum information papers—emailed me about her view that our community should abandon the term “quantum supremacy,” because of its potential to make women and minorities uncomfortable in our field. She advocated using “quantum advantage” instead.

So I sent Leonie back a friendly reply, explaining that, as the father of a math-loving 6-year-old girl, I understood and shared her concerns—but also, that I didn’t know an alternative term that really worked.

See, it’s like this. Preskill meant “quantum supremacy” to refer to a momentous event that seemed likely to arrive in a matter of years: namely, the moment when programmable quantum computers would first outpace the ability of the fastest classical supercomputers on earth, running the fastest algorithms known by humans, to simulate what the quantum computers were doing (at least on special, contrived problems). And … “the historic milestone of quantum advantage”? It just doesn’t sound right. Plus, as many others pointed out, the term “quantum advantage” is already used to refer to … well, quantum advantages, which might fall well short of supremacy.

But one could go further. Suppose we did switch to “quantum advantage.” Couldn’t that term, too, remind vulnerable people about the unfair advantages that some groups have over others? Indeed, while “advantage” is certainly subtler than “supremacy,” couldn’t that make it all the more insidious, and therefore dangerous?

Oblivious though I sometimes am, I realized Leonie would be unhappy if I offered that, because of my wholehearted agreement, I would henceforth never again call it “quantum supremacy,” but only “quantum superiority,” “quantum dominance,” or “quantum hegemony.”

But maybe you now see the problem. What word does the English language provide to describe one thing decisively beating or being better than a different thing for some purpose, and which doesn’t have unsavory connotations?

I’ve heard “quantum ascendancy,” but that makes it sound like we’re a UFO cult—waiting to ascend, like ytterbium ions caught in a laser beam, to a vast quantum computer in the sky.

I’ve heard “quantum inimitability” (that is, inability to imitate using a classical computer), but who can pronounce that?

Yesterday, my brilliant former student Ewin Tang (yes, that one) relayed to me a suggestion by Kevin Tian: “quantum eclipse” (that is, the moment when quantum computers first eclipse classical ones for some task). But would one want to speak of a “quantum eclipse experiment”? And shouldn’t we expect that, the cuter and cleverer the term, the harder it will be to use unironically?

In summary, while someone might think of a term so inspired that it immediately supplants “quantum supremacy” (and while I welcome suggestions), I currently regard it as an open problem.

Anyway, evidently dissatisfied with my response, last week Leonie teamed up with 13 others to publish a letter in Nature, which was originally entitled “Supremacy is for racists—use ‘quantum advantage,'” but whose title I see has now been changed to the less inflammatory “Instead of ‘supremacy’ use ‘quantum advantage.'” Leonie’s co-signatories included four of my good friends and colleagues: Alan Aspuru-Guzik, Helmut Katzgraber, Anne Broadbent, and Chris Granade (the last of whom got started in the field by helping me edit Quantum Computing Since Democritus).

(Update: Leonie pointed me to a longer list of signatories here, at their website called “quantumresponsibility.org.” A few names that might be known to Shtetl-Optimized readers are Andrew White, David Yonge-Mallo, Debbie Leung, Matt Leifer, Matthias Troyer.)

Their letter says:

The community claims that quantum supremacy is a technical term with a specified meaning. However, any technical justification for this descriptor could get swamped as it enters the public arena after the intense media coverage of the past few months.

In our view, ‘supremacy’ has overtones of violence, neocolonialism and racism through its association with ‘white supremacy’. Inherently violent language has crept into other branches of science as well — in human and robotic spaceflight, for example, terms such as ‘conquest’, ‘colonization’ and ‘settlement’ evoke the terra nullius arguments of settler colonialism and must be contextualized against ongoing issues of neocolonialism.

Instead, quantum computing should be an open arena and an inspiration for a new generation of scientists.

When I did an “Ask Me Anything” session, as the closing event at Q2B, Sarah Kaiser asked me to comment on the Nature petition. So I repeated what I’d said in my emailed response to Leonie—running through the problems with each proposed alternative term, talking about the value of reclaiming the word “supremacy,” and mostly just trying to diffuse the tension by getting everyone laughing together. Sarah later tweeted that she was “really disappointed” in my response.

Then the Wall Street Journal got in on the action, with a brief editorial (warning: paywalled) mocking the Nature petition:

There it is, folks: Mankind has hit quantum wokeness. Our species, akin to Schrödinger’s cat, is simultaneously brilliant and brain-dead. We built a quantum computer and then argued about whether the write-up was linguistically racist.

Taken seriously, the renaming game will never end. First put a Sharpie to the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says federal laws trump state laws. Cancel Matt Damon for his 2004 role in “The Bourne Supremacy.” Make the Air Force give up the term “air supremacy.” Tell lovers of supreme pizza to quit being so chauvinistic about their toppings. Please inform Motown legend Diana Ross that the Supremes are problematic.

The quirks of quantum mechanics, some people argue, are explained by the existence of many universes. How did we get stuck in this one?

Steven Pinker also weighed in, with a linguistically-informed tweetstorm:

This sounds like something from The Onion but actually appeared in Nature … It follows the wokified stigmatization of other innocent words, like “House Master” (now, at Harvard, Residential Dean) and “NIPS” (Neural Information Processing Society, now NeurIPS). It’s a familiar linguistic phenomenon, a lexical version of Gresham’s Law: bad meanings drive good ones out of circulation. Examples: the doomed “niggardly” (no relation to the n-word) and the original senses of “cock,” “ass,” “prick,” “pussy,” and “booty.” Still, the prissy banning of words by academics should be resisted. It dumbs down understanding of language: word meanings are conventions, not spells with magical powers, and all words have multiple senses, which are distinguished in context. Also, it makes academia a laughingstock, tars the innocent, and does nothing to combat actual racism & sexism.

Others had a stronger reaction. Curtis Yarvin, better known as Mencius Moldbug, is one of the founders of “neoreaction” (and a significant influence on Steve Bannon, Michael Anton, and other Trumpists). Regulars might remember that Yarvin argued with me in Shtetl-Optimized‘s comment section, under a post in which I denounced Trump’s travel ban and its effects on my Iranian PhD student. Since then, Yarvin has sent me many emails, which have ranged from long to extremely long, and whose message could be summarized as: “[labored breathing] Abandon your liberal Enlightenment pretensions, young Nerdwalker. Come over the Dark Side.”

After the “supremacy is for racists” letter came out in Nature, though, Yarvin sent me his shortest email ever. It was simply a link to the letter, along with the comment “I knew it would come to this.”

He meant: “What more proof do you need, young Nerdawan, that this performative wokeness is a cancer that will eventually infect everything you value—even totally apolitical research in quantum information? And by extension, that my whole worldview, which warned of this, is fundamentally correct, while your faith in liberal academia is naïve, and will be repaid only with backstabbing?”

In a subsequent email, Yarvin predicted that in two years, the whole community will be saying “quantum advantage” instead of “quantum supremacy,” and in five years I’ll be saying “quantum advantage” too. As Yarvin famously wrote: “Cthulhu may swim slowly. But he only swims left.”

So what do I really think about this epic battle for (and against) supremacy?

Truthfully, half of me just wants to switch to “quantum advantage” right now and be done with it. As I said, I know some of the signatories of the Nature letter to be smart and reasonable and kind. They don’t wish to rid the planet of everyone like me. They’re not Amanda Marcottes or Arthur Chus. Furthermore, there’s little I despise more than a meaty scientific debate devolving into a pointless semantic one, with brilliant friend after brilliant friend getting sucked into the vortex (“you too?”). I’m strongly in the Pinkerian camp, which holds that words are just arbitrary designators, devoid of the totemic power to dictate thoughts. So if friends and colleagues—even just a few of them—tell me that they find some word I use to be offensive, why not just be a mensch, apologize for any unintended hurt, switch words midsentence, and continue discussing the matter at hand?

But then the other half of me wonders: once we’ve ceded an open-ended veto over technical terms that remind anyone of anything bad, where does it stop? How do we ever certify a word as kosher? At what point do we all get to stop arguing and laugh together?

To make this worry concrete, look back at Sarah Kaiser’s Twitter thread—the one where she expresses disappointment in me. Below her tweet, someone remarks that, besides “quantum supremacy,” the word “ancilla” (as in ancilla qubit, a qubit used for intermediate computation or other auxiliary purposes) is problematic as well. Here’s Sarah’s response:

I agree, but I wanted to start by focusing on the obvious one, Its harder for them to object to just one to start with, then once they admit the logic, we can expand the list

(What would Curtis Yarvin say about that?)

You’re probably now wondering: what’s wrong with “ancilla”? Apparently, in ancient Rome, an “ancilla” was a female slave, and indeed that’s the Latin root of the English adjective “ancillary” (as in “providing support to”). I confess that I hadn’t known that—had you? Admittedly, once you do know, you might never again look at a Controlled-NOT gate—pitilessly flipping an ancilla qubit, subject only to the whims of a nearby control qubit—in quite the same way.

(Ah, but the ancilla can fight back against her controller! And she does—in the Hadamard basis.)

The thing is, if we’re gonna play this game: what about annihilation operators? Won’t those need to be … annihilated from physics?

And what about unitary matrices? Doesn’t their very name negate the multiplicity of perspectives and cultures?

What about Dirac’s oddly-named bra/ket notation, with its limitless potential for puerile jokes, about the “bra” vectors displaying their contents horizontally and so forth? (Did you smile at that, you hateful pig?)

What about daggers? Don’t we need a less violent conjugate tranpose?

Not to beat a dead horse, but once you hunt for examples, you realize that the whole dictionary is shot through with domination and brutality—that you’d have to massacre the English language to take it out. There’s nothing special about math or physics in this respect.

The same half of me also thinks about my friends and colleagues who oppose claims of quantum supremacy, or even the quest for quantum supremacy, on various scientific grounds. I.e., either they don’t think that the Google team achieved what it said, or they think that the task wasn’t hard enough for classical computers, or they think that the entire goal is misguided or irrelevant or uninteresting.

Which is fine—these are precisely the arguments we should be having—except that I’ve personally seen some of my respected colleagues, while arguing for these positions, opportunistically tack on ideological objections to the term “quantum supremacy.” Just to goose up their case, I guess. And I confess that every time they did this, it made me want to keep saying “quantum supremacy” from now till the end of time—solely to deny these colleagues a cheap and unearned “victory,” one they apparently felt they couldn’t obtain on the merits alone. I realize that this is childish and irrational.

Most of all, though, the half of me that I’m talking about thinks about Curtis Yarvin and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, cackling with glee to see their worldview so dramatically confirmed—as theatrical wokeness, that self-parodying modern monstrosity, turns its gaze on (of all things) quantum computing research. More red meat to fire up the base—or at least that sliver of the base nerdy enough to care. And the left, as usual, walks right into the trap, sacrificing its credibility with the outside world to pursue a runaway virtue-signaling spiral.

The same half of me thinks: do we really want to fight racism and sexism? Then let’s work together to assemble a broad coalition that can defeat Trump. And Jair Bolsonaro, and Viktor Orbán, and all the other ghastly manifestations of humanity’s collective lizard-brain. Then, if we’re really fantasizing, we could liberalize the drug laws, and get contraception and loans and education to women in the Third World, and stop the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters, and open up the world’s richer, whiter, and higher-elevation countries to climate refugees, and protect the world’s remaining indigenous lands (those that didn’t burn to the ground this year).

In this context, the trouble with obsessing over terms like “quantum supremacy” is not merely that it diverts attention, while contributing nothing to fighting the world’s actual racism and sexism. The trouble is that the obsessions are actually harmful. For they make academics—along with progressive activists—look silly. They make people think that we must not have meant it when we talked about the existential urgency of climate change and the world’s other crises. They pump oxygen into right-wing echo chambers.

But it’s worse than ridiculous, because of the message that I fear is received by many outside the activists’ bubble. When you say stuff like “[quantum] supremacy is for racists,” what’s heard might be something more like:

“Watch your back, you disgusting supremacist. Yes, you. You claim that you mentor women and minorities, donate to good causes, try hard to confront the demons in your own character? Ha! None of that counts for anything with us. You’ll never be with-it enough to be our ally, so don’t bother trying. We’ll see to it that you’re never safe, not even in the most abstruse and apolitical fields. We’ll comb through your words—even words like ‘ancilla qubit’—looking for any that we can cast as offensive by our opaque and ever-shifting standards. And once we find some, we’ll have it within our power to end your career, and you’ll be reduced to groveling that we don’t. Remember those popular kids who bullied you in second grade, giving you nightmares of social ostracism that persist to this day? We plan to achieve what even those bullies couldn’t: to shame you with the full backing of the modern world’s moral code. See, we’re the good guys of this story. It’s goodness itself that’s branding you as racist scum.”

In short, I claim that the message—not the message intended, of course, by anyone other than a Chu or a Marcotte or a SneerClubber, but the message received—is basically a Trump campaign ad. I claim further that our civilization’s current self-inflicted catastrophe will end—i.e., the believers in science and reason and progress and rule of law will claw their way back to power—when, and only when, a generation of activists emerges that understands these dynamics as well as Barack Obama did.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if, five years from now, I could say to Curtis Yarvin: you were wrong? If I could say to him: my colleagues and I still use the term ‘quantum supremacy’ whenever we care to, and none of us have been cancelled or ostracized for it—so maybe you should revisit your paranoid theories about Cthulhu and the Cathedral and so forth? If I could say: quantum computing researchers now have bigger fish to fry than arguments over words—like moving beyond quantum supremacy to the first useful quantum simulations, as well as the race for scalability and fault-tolerance? And even: progressive activists now have bigger fish to fry too—like retaking actual power all over the world?

Anyway, as I said, that’s how half of me feels. The other half is ready to switch to “quantum advantage” or any other serviceable term and get back to doing science.

Guest post by Greg Kuperberg: Archimedes’ other principle and quantum supremacy

Tuesday, November 26th, 2019

Scott’s Introduction: Happy Thanksgiving! Please join me in giving thanks for the beautiful post below, by friend-of-the-blog Greg Kuperberg, which tells a mathematical story that stretches from the 200s BC all the way to Google’s quantum supremacy result last month.

Archimedes’ other principle and quantum supremacy

by Greg Kuperberg

Note: UC Davis is hiring in CS theory! Scott offered me free ad space if I wrote a guest post, so here we are. The position is in all areas of CS theory, including QC theory although the search is not limited to that.

In this post, I wear the hat of a pure mathematician in a box provided by Archimedes. I thus set aside what everyone else thinks is important about Google’s 53-qubit quantum supremacy experiment, that it is a dramatic milestone in quantum computing technology. That’s only news about the physical world, whose significance pales in comparison to the Platonic world of mathematical objects. In my happy world, I like quantum supremacy as a demonstration of a beautiful coincidence in mathematics that has been known for more than 2000 years in a special case. The single-qubit case was discovered by Archimedes, duh. As Scott mentions in Quantum Computing Since Democritus, Bill Wootters stated the general result in a 1990 paper, but Wootters credits a 1974 paper by the Czech physicist Stanislav Sýkora. I learned of it in the substantially more general context of symplectic geometric that mathematicians developed independently between Sýkora’s prescient paper and Wootters’ more widely known citation. Much as I would like to clobber you with highly abstract mathematics, I will wait for some other time.

Suppose that you pick a pure state \(|\psi\rangle\) in the Hilbert space \(\mathbb{C}^d\) of a \(d\)-dimensional qudit, and then make many copies and fully measure each one, so that you sample many times from some distribution \(\mu\) on the \(d\) outcomes. You can think of such a distribution \(\mu\) as a classical randomized state on a digit of size \(d\). The set of all randomized states on a \(d\)-digit makes a \((d-1)\)-dimensional simplex \(\Delta^{d-1}\) in the orthant \(\mathbb{R}_{\ge 0}^d\). The coincidence is that if \(|\psi\rangle\) is uniformly random in the unit sphere in \(\mathbb{C}^d\), then \(\mu\) is uniformly random in \(\Delta^{d-1}\). I will call it the Born map, since it expresses the Born rule of quantum mechanics that amplitudes yield probabilities. Here is a diagram of the Born map of a qutrit, except with the laughable simplification of the 5-sphere in \(\mathbb{C}^3\) drawn as a 2-sphere.

If you pretend to be a bad probability student, then you might not be surprised by this coincidence, because you might suppose that all probability distributions are uniform other than treacherous exceptions to your intuition. However, the principle is certainly not true for a “rebit” (a qubit with real amplitudes) or for higher-dimensional “redits.” With real amplitudes, the probability density goes to infinity at the sides of the simplex \(\Delta^{d-1}\) and is even more favored at the corners. It also doesn’t work for mixed qudit states; the projection then favors the middle of \(\Delta^{d-1}\).

Archimedes’ theorem

The theorem of Archimedes is that a natural projection from the unit sphere to a circumscribing vertical cylinder preserves area. The projection is the second one that you might think of: Project radially from a vertical axis rather than radially in all three directions. Since Archimedes was a remarkably prescient mathematician, he was looking ahead to the Bloch sphere of pure qubit states \(|\psi\rangle\langle\psi|\) written in density operator form. If you measure \(|\psi\rangle\langle\psi|\) in the computational basis, you get a randomized bit state \(\mu\) somewhere on the interval from guaranteed 0 to guaranteed 1.

This transformation from a quantum state to a classical randomized state is a linear projection to a vertical axis. It is the same as Archimedes’ projection, except without the angle information. It doesn’t preserve dimension, but it does preserve measure (area or length, whatever) up to a factor of \(2\pi\). In particular, it takes a uniformly random \(|\psi\rangle\langle\psi|\) to a uniformly random \(\mu\).

Archimedes’ projection is also known as the Lambert cylindrical map of the world. This is the map that squishes Greenland along with the top of North America and Eurasia to give them proportionate area.

(I forgive Lambert if he didn’t give prior credit to Archimedes. There was no Internet back then to easily find out who did what first.) Here is a calculus-based proof of Archimedes’ theorem: In spherical coordinates, imagine an annular strip on the sphere at a polar angle of \(\theta\). (The polar angle is the angle from vertical in spherical coordinates, as depicted in red in the Bloch sphere diagram.) The strip has a radius of \(\sin\theta\), which makes it shorter than its unit radius friend on the cylinder. But it’s also tilted from vertical by an angle of \(\frac{\pi}2-\theta\), which makes it wider by a factor of \(1/(\sin \theta)\) than the height of its projection onto the \(z\) axis. The two factors exactly cancel out, making the area of the strip exactly proportional to the length of its projection onto the \(z\) axis. This is a coincidence which is special to the 2-sphere in 3 dimensions. As a corollary, we get that the surface area of a unit sphere is \(4\pi\), the same as an open cylinder with radius 1 and height 2. If you want to step through this in even more detail, Scott mentioned to me an action video which is vastly spiffier than anything that I could ever make.

The projection of the Bloch sphere onto an interval also shows what goes wrong if you try this with a rebit. The pure rebit states — again expressed in density operator form \(|\psi\rangle\langle\psi|\) are a great circle in the Bloch sphere. If you linearly project a circle onto an interval, then the length of the circle is clearly bunched up at the ends of the interval and the projected measure on the interval is not uniform.

Sýkora’s generalization

It is a neat coincidence that the Born map of a qubit preserves measure, but a proof that relies on Archimedes’ theorem seems to depend on the special geometry of the Bloch sphere of a qubit. That the higher-dimensional Born map also preserves measure is downright eerie. Scott challenged me to write an intuitive explanation. I remembered two different (but similar) proofs, neither of which is original to me. Scott and I disagree as to which proof is nicer.

As a first step of the first proof, it is easy to show that the Born map \(p = |z|^2\) for a single amplitude \(z\) preserves measure as a function from the complex plane \(\mathbb{C}\) to the ray \(\mathbb{R}_{\ge 0}\). The region in the complex numbers \(\mathbb{C}\) where the length of \(z\) is between \(a\) and \(b\), or \(a \le |z| \le b\), is \(\pi(b^2 – a^2)\). The corresponding interval for the probability is \(a^2 \le p \le b^2\), which thus has length \(b^2-a^2\). That’s all, we’ve proved it! More precisely, the area of any circularly symmetric region in \(\mathbb{C}\) is \(\pi\) times the length of its projection onto \(\mathbb{R}_{\ge 0}\).

The second step is to show the same thing for the Born map from the \(d\)-qudit Hilbert space \(\mathbb{C}^d\) to the \(d\)-digit orthant \(\mathbb{R}_{\ge 0}^d\), again without unit normalization. It’s also measure-preserving, up to a factor of \(\pi^d\) this time, because it’s the same thing in each coordinate separately. To be precise, the volume ratio holds for any region in \(\mathbb{C}^d\) that is invariant under separately rotating each of the \(d\) phases. (Because you can approximate any such region with a union of products of thin annuli.)

The third and final step is the paint principle for comparing surface areas. If you paint the hoods of two cars with the same thin layer of paint and you used the same volume of paint for each one, then you can conclude that the two car hoods have nearly same area. In our case, the Born map takes the region \[ 1 \le |z_0|^2 + |z_1|^2 + \cdots + |z_{d-1}|^2 \le 1+\epsilon \] in \(\mathbb{C}^d\) to the region \[ 1 \le p_0 + p_1 + \cdots + p_{d-1} \le 1+\epsilon \] in the orthant \(\mathbb{R}_{\ge 0}^d\). The former is the unit sphere \(S^{2d-1}\) in \(\mathbb{C}^d\) painted to a thickness of roughly \(\epsilon/2\). The latter is the probability simplex \(\Delta^{n-1}\) painted to a thickness of exactly \(\epsilon\). Taking the limit \(\epsilon \to 0\), the Born map from \(S^{2d-1}\) to \(\Delta^{n-1}\) preserves measure up to a factor of \(2\pi^n\).

You might wonder “why” this argument works even if you accept that it does work. The key is that the exponent 2 appears in two different ways: as the dimension of the complex numbers, and as the exponent used to set probabilities and define spheres. If we try the same argument with real amplitudes, then the volume between “spheres” of radius \(a\) and \(b\) is just \(2(b-a)\), which does not match the length \(b^2-a^2\). The Born map for a single real amplitude is the parabola \(p = x^2\), which clearly distorts length since it is not linear. The higher-dimensional real Born map similarly distorts volumes, whether or not you restrict to unit-length states.

If you’re a bitter-ender who still wants Archimedes’ theorem for real amplitudes, then you might consider the variant formula \(p = |x|\) to obtain a probability \(p\) from a “quantum amplitude” \(x\). Then the “Born” map does preserve measure, but for the trivial reason that \(x = \pm p\) is not really a quantum amplitude, it is a probability with a vestigial sign. Also the unit “sphere” in \(\mathbb{R}^d\) is not really a sphere in this theory, it is a hyperoctahedron. The only “unitary” operators that preserve the unit hyperoctahedron are signed permutation matrices. You can only use them for reversible classical computing or symbolic dynamics; they don’t have the strength of true quantum computing or quantum mechanics.

The fact that the Born map preserves measure also yields a bonus calculation of the volume of the unit ball in \(2d\) real dimensions, if we interpret that as \(d\) complex dimensions. The ball \[ |z_0|^2 + |z_1|^2 + \cdots + |z_{d-1}|^2 \le 1 \] in \(\mathbb{C}^d\) is sent to a different simplex \[ p_0 + p_1 + \cdots + p_{d-1} \le 1 \] in \(\mathbb{R}_{\ge 0}^d\). If we recall that the volume of a \(d\)-dimensional pyramid is \(\frac1d\) times base times height and calculate by induction on \(d\), we get that this simplex has volume \(\frac1{d!}\). Thus, the volume of the \(2d\)-dimensional unit ball is \(\frac{\pi^d}{d!}\).

You might ask whether the volume of a \(d\)-dimensional unit ball is always \(\frac{\pi^{d/2}}{(d/2)!}\) for both \(d\) even and odd. The answer is yes if we interpret factorials using the gamma function formula \(x! = \Gamma(x+1)\) and look up that \(\frac12! = \Gamma(\frac32) = \frac{\sqrt{\pi}}2\). The gamma function was discovered by Euler as a solution to the question of defining fractional factorials, but the notation \(\Gamma(x)\) and the cumbersome shift by 1 is due to Legendre. Although Wikipedia says that no one knows why Legendre defined it this way, I wonder if his goal was to do what the Catholic church later did for itself in 1978: It put a Pole at the origin.

(Scott wanted to censor this joke. In response, I express my loyalty to my nation of birth by quoting the opening of the Polish national anthem: “Poland has not yet died, so long as we still live!” I thought at first that Stanislav Sýkora is Polish since Stanisław and Sikora are both common Polish names, but his name has Czech spelling and he is Czech. Well, the Czechs are cool too.)

Sýkora’s 1974 proof of the generalized Archimedes’ theorem is different from this one. He calculates multivariate moments of the space of unit states \(S^{2d-1} \subseteq \mathbb{C}^d\), and confirms that they match the moments in the probability simplex \(\Delta^{d-1}\). There are inevitably various proofs of this result, and I will give another one.

Another proof, and quantum supremacy

There is a well-known and very useful algorithm to generate a random point on the unit sphere in either \(\mathbb{R}^d\) or \(\mathbb{C}^d\), and a similar algorithm to generate a random point in a simplex. In the former algorithm, we make each real coordinate \(x\) into an independent Gaussian random variable with density proportional to \(e^{-x^2}\;dx\), and then rescale the result to unit length. Since the exponents combine as \[ e^{-x_0^2}e^{-x_1^2}\cdots e^{-x_{d-1}^2} = e^{-(x_0^2 + x_1^2 + \cdots + x_{d-1}^2)}, \] we learn that the total exponent is spherically symmetric. Therefore after rescaling, the result is a uniformly random point on the unit sphere \(S^{d-1} \subseteq \mathbb{R}^d\). Similarly, the other algorithm generates a point in the orthant \(\mathbb{R}_{\ge 0}^d\) by making each real coordinate \(p \ge 0\) an independent random variable with exponential distribution \(e^{-p}\;dp\). This time we rescale the vector until its sum is 1. This algorithm likewise produces a uniformly random point in the simplex \(\Delta^{d-1} \subseteq \mathbb{R}_{\ge 0}^d\) because the total exponent of the product \[ e^{-p_0}e^{-p_1}\cdots e^{-p_{d-1}} = e^{-(p_0 + p_1 + \cdots + p_{d-1})} \] only depends on the sum of the coordinates. Wootters describes both of these algorithms in his 1990 paper, but instead of relating them to give his own proof of the generalized Archimedes’ theorem, he cites Sýkora.

The gist of the proof is that the Born map takes the Gaussian algorithm to the exponential algorithm. Explicitly, the Gaussian probability density for a single complex amplitude \[ z = x+iy = re^{i\theta} \] can be converted from Cartesian to polar coordinate as follows: \[ \frac{e^{-|z|^2}\;dx\;dy}{\pi} = \frac{e^{-r^2}r\;dr\;d\theta}{\pi}. \] I have included the factor of \(r\) that is naturally present in an area integral in polar coordinates. We will need it, and it is another way to see that the theorem relies on the fact that the complex numbers are two-dimensional. To complete the proof, we substitute \(p = r^2\) and remember that \(dp = 2r\;dr\), and then integrate over \(\theta\) (trivially, since the integrand does not depend on \(\theta\)). The density simplifies to \(e^{-p}\;dp\), which is exactly the exponential distribution for a real variable \(p \ge 0\). Since the Born map takes the Gaussian algorithm to the exponential algorithm, and since each algorithm produces a uniformly random point, the Born map must preserve uniform measure. (Scott likes this proof better because it is algorithmic, and because it is probabilistic.)

Now about quantum supremacy. You might think that a random chosen quantum circuit on \(n\) qubits produces a nearly uniformly random quantum state \(|\psi\rangle\) in their joint Hilbert space, but it’s not quite not that simple. When \(n=53\), or otherwise as \(n \to \infty\), a manageable random circuit is not nearly creative enough to either reach or approximate most of the unit states in the colossal Hilbert space of dimension \(d = 2^n\). The state \(|\psi\rangle\) that you get from (say) a polynomial-sized circuit resembles a fully random state in various statistical and computational respects, both proven and conjectured. As a result, if you measure the qubits in the computational basis, you get a randomized state on \(n\) bits that resembles a uniformly random point in \(\Delta^{2^n-1}\).

If you choose \(d\) probabilities, and if each one is an independent exponential random variable, then the law of large numbers says that the sum (which you use for rescaling) is close to \(d\) when \(d\) is large. When \(d\) is really big like \(2^{53}\), a histogram of the probabilities of the bit strings of a supremacy experiment looks like an exponential curve \(f(p) \propto e^{-pd}\). In a sense, the statistical distribution of the bit strings is almost the same almost every time, independent of which random quantum circuit you choose to generate them. The catch is that the position of any given bit string does depend on the circuit and is highly scrambled. I picture it in my mind like this:

It is thought to be computationally intractable to calculate where each bit string lands on this exponential curve, or even where just one of them does. (The exponential curve is attenuated by noise in the actual experiment, but it’s the same principle.) That is one reason that random quantum circuits are supreme.

The Aaronson-Ambainis Conjecture (2008-2019)

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

Update: Sadly, Nathan Keller and Ohad Klein tell me that they’ve retracted their preprint, because of what currently looks like a fatal flaw in Lemma 5.3, uncovered by Paata Ivanishvili. I wish them the best of luck in fixing the problem. In the meantime, I’m leaving up this post for “historical” reasons.

Around 1999, one of the first things I ever did in quantum computing theory was to work on a problem that Fortnow and Rogers suggested in a paper: is it possible to separate P from BQP relative to a random oracle? (That is, without first needing to separate P from PSPACE or whatever in the real world?) Or to the contrary: suppose that a quantum algorithm Q makes T queries to a Boolean input string X. Is there then a classical simulation algorithm that makes poly(T) queries to X, and that approximates Q’s acceptance probability for most values of X? Such a classical simulation, were it possible, would still be consistent with the existence of quantum algorithms like Simon’s and Shor’s, which are able to achieve exponential (and even greater) speedups in the black-box setting. It would simply demonstrate the importance, for Simon’s and Shor’s algorithms, of global structure that makes the string X extremely non-random: for example, encoding a periodic function (in the case of Shor’s algorithm), or encoding a function that hides a secret string s (in the case of Simon’s). It would underscore that superpolynomial quantum speedups depend on structure.

I never managed to solve this problem. Around 2008, though, I noticed that a solution would follow from a perhaps-not-obviously-related conjecture, about influences in low-degree polynomials. Namely, let p:Rn→R be a degree-d real polynomial in n variables, and suppose p(x)∈[0,1] for all x∈{0,1}n. Define the variance of p to be
Var(p):=Ex,y[|p(x)-p(y)|],
and define the influence of the ith variable to be
Infi(p):=Ex[|p(x)-p(xi)|].
Here the expectations are over strings in {0,1}n, and xi means x with its ith bit flipped between 0 and 1. Then the conjecture is this: there must be some variable i such that Infi(p) ≥ poly(Var(p)/d) (in other words, that “explains” a non-negligible fraction of the variance of the entire polynomial).

Why would this conjecture imply the statement about quantum algorithms? Basically, because of the seminal result of Beals et al. from 1998: that if a quantum algorithm makes T queries to a Boolean input X, then its acceptance probability can be written as a real polynomial over the bits of X, of degree at most 2T. Given that result, if you wanted to classically simulate a quantum algorithm Q on most inputs—and if you only cared about query complexity, not computation time—you’d simply need to do the following:
(1) Find the polynomial p that represents Q’s acceptance probability.
(2) Find a variable i that explains at least a 1/poly(T) fraction of the total remaining variance in p, and query that i.
(3) Keep repeating step (2), until p has been restricted to a polynomial with not much variance left—i.e., to nearly a constant function p(X)=c. Whenever that happens, halt and output the constant c.
The key is that by hypothesis, this algorithm will halt, with high probability over X, after only poly(T) steps.

Anyway, around the same time, Andris Ambainis had a major break on a different problem that I’d told him about: namely, whether randomized and quantum query complexities are polynomially related for all partial functions with permutation symmetry (like the collision and the element distinctness functions). Andris and I decided to write up the two directions jointly. The result was our 2011 paper entitled The Need for Structure in Quantum Speedups.

Of the two contributions in the “Need for Structure” paper, the one about random oracles and influences in low-degree polynomials was clearly the weaker and less satisfying one. As the reviewers pointed out, that part of the paper didn’t solve anything: it just reduced one unsolved problem to a new, slightly different problem that was also unsolved. Nevertheless, that part of the paper acquired a life of its own over the ensuing decade, as the world’s experts in analysis of Boolean functions and polynomials began referring to the “Aaronson-Ambainis Conjecture.” Ryan O’Donnell, Guy Kindler, and many others had a stab. I even got Terry Tao to spend an hour or two on the problem when I visited UCLA.

Now, at long last, Nathan Keller and Ohad Klein say they’ve proven the Aaronson-Ambainis Conjecture, in a preprint whose title is a riff on ours: “Quantum Speedups Need Structure.”

Their paper hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, and I haven’t yet carefully studied it, but I could and should: at 19 pages, it looks very approachable and clear, if not as radically short as (say) Huang’s proof of the Sensitivity Conjecture. Keller and Klein’s argument subsumes all the earlier results that I knew would need to be subsumed, and involves all the concepts (like a real analogue of block sensitivity) that I knew would need to be involved somehow.

My plan had been as follows:
(1) Read their paper in detail. Understand every step of their proof.
(2) Write a blog post that reflects my detailed understanding.

Unfortunately, this plan did not sufficiently grapple with the fact that I now have two kids. It got snagged for a week at step (1). So I’m now executing an alternative plan, which is to jump immediately to the blog post.

Assuming Keller and Klein’s result holds up—as I expect it will—by combining it with the observations in my and Andris’s paper, one immediately gets an explanation for why no one has managed to separate P from BQP relative to a random oracle, but only relative to non-random oracles. This complements the work of Kahn, Saks, and Smyth, who around 2000 gave a precisely analogous explanation for the difficulty of separating P from NP∩coNP relative to a random oracle.

Unfortunately, the polynomial blowup is quite enormous: from a quantum algorithm making T queries, Keller and Klein apparently get a classical algorithm making O(T18) queries. But such things can almost always be massively improved.

Feel free to use the comments to ask any questions about this result or its broader context. I’ll either do my best to answer from the limited amount I know, or else I’ll pass the questions along to Nathan and Ohad themselves. Maybe, at some point, I’ll even be forced to understand the new proof.

Congratulations to Nathan and Ohad!

Update (Nov. 20): Tonight I finally did what I should’ve done two weeks ago, and worked through the paper from start to finish. Modulo some facts about noise operators, hypercontractivity, etc. that I took on faith, I now have a reasonable (albeit imperfect) understanding of the proof. It’s great!

In case it’s helpful to anybody, here’s my one-paragraph summary of how it works. First, you hit your bounded degree-d function f with a random restriction to attenuate its higher-degree Fourier coefficients (reminiscent of Linial-Mansour-Nisan).  Next, in that attenuated function, you find a small “coalition” of influential variables—by which we mean, a set of variables for which there’s some assignment that substantially biases f.  You keep iterating—finding influential coalitions in subfunctions on n/4, n/8, etc. variables. All the while, you keep track of the norm of the vector of all the block-sensitivities of all the inputs (the authors don’t clearly explain this in the intro, but they reveal it near the end). Every time you find another influential coalition, that norm goes down by a little, but by approximation theory, it can only go down O(d2) times until it hits rock bottom and your function is nearly constant. By the end, you’ll have approximated f itself by a decision tree of depth poly(d, 1/ε, log(n)).  Finally, you get rid of the log(n) term by using the fact that f essentially depended on at most exp(O(d)) variables anyway.

Anyway, I’m not sure how helpful it is to write more: the paper itself is about 95% as clear as it could possibly be, and even where it isn’t, you’d probably need to read it first (and, uh, know something about influences, block sensitivity, random restrictions, etc.) before any further clarifying remarks would be of use. But happy to discuss more in the comments, if anyone else is reading it.

Annual recruitment post

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

Just like I did last year, and the year before, I’m putting up a post to let y’all know about opportunities in our growing Quantum Information Center at UT Austin.

I’m proud to report that we’re building something pretty good here. This fall Shyam Shankar joined our Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) faculty to do experimental superconducting qubits, while (as I blogged in the summer) the quantum complexity theorist John Wright will join me on the CS faculty in Fall 2020. Meanwhile, Drew Potter, an expert on topological qubits, rejoined our physics faculty after a brief leave. Our weekly quantum information group meeting now regularly attracts around 30 participants—from the turnout, you wouldn’t know it’s not MIT or Caltech or Waterloo. My own group now has five postdocs and six PhD students—as well as some amazing undergrads striving to meet the bar set by Ewin Tang. Course offerings in quantum information currently include Brian La Cour’s Freshman Research Initiative, my own undergrad Intro to Quantum Information Science honors class, and graduate classes on quantum complexity theory, experimental realizations of QC, and topological matter (with more to come). We’ll also be starting an undergraduate Quantum Information Science concentration next fall.

So without further ado:

(1) If you’re interested in pursuing a PhD focused on quantum computing and information (and/or classical theoretical computer science) at UT Austin: please apply! If you want to work with me or John Wright on quantum algorithms and complexity, apply to CS (I can also supervise physics students in rare cases). Also apply to CS, of course, if you want to work with our other CS theory faculty: David Zuckerman, Dana Moshkovitz, Adam Klivans, Anna Gal, Eric Price, Brent Waters, Vijaya Ramachandran, or Greg Plaxton. If you want to work with Drew Potter on nonabelian anyons or suchlike, or with Allan MacDonald, Linda Reichl, Elaine Li, or others on many-body quantum theory, apply to physics. If you want to work with Shyam Shankar on superconducting qubits, apply to ECE. Note that the deadline for CS and physics is December 1, while the deadline for ECE is December 15.

You don’t need to ask me whether I’m on the lookout for great students: I always am! If you say on your application that you want to work with me, I’ll be sure to see it. Emailing individual faculty members is not how it works and won’t help. Admissions are extremely competitive, so I strongly encourage you to apply broadly to maximize your options.

(2) If you’re interested in a postdoc in my group, I’ll have approximately two openings starting in Fall 2020. To apply, just send me an email by January 1, 2020 with the following info:
– Your CV
– 2 or 3 of your best papers (links or PDF attachments)
– The names of two recommenders (who should email me their letters separately)

(3) If you’re on the faculty job market in quantum computing and information—well, please give me a heads-up if you’re potentially interested in Austin! Our CS, physics, and ECE departments are all open to considering additional candidates in quantum information, both junior and senior. I can’t take credit for this—it surely has to do with developments beyond my control, both at UT and beyond—but I’m happy to relay that, in the three years since I arrived in Texas, the appetite for strengthening UT’s presence in quantum information has undergone jaw-dropping growth at every level of the university.

Also, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport now has direct flights to London, Frankfurt, and (soon) Amsterdam and Paris.

Hook ’em Hadamards!

The morality of quantum computing

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

This morning a humanities teacher named Richard Horan, having read my NYT op-ed on quantum supremacy, emailed me the following question about it:

Is this pursuit [of scalable quantum computation] just an arms race? A race to see who can achieve it first? To what end? Will this achievement yield advances in medical science and human quality of life, or will it threaten us even more than we are threatened presently by our technologies? You seem rather sanguine about its possible development and uses. But how close does the hand on that doomsday clock move to midnight once we “can harness an exponential number of amplitudes for computation”?

I thought this question might possibly be of some broader interest, so here’s my response (with some light edits).

Dear Richard,

A radio interviewer asked me a similar question a couple weeks ago—whether there’s an ethical dimension to quantum computing research.  I replied that there’s an ethical dimension to everything that humans do.

A quantum computer is not like a nuclear weapon: it’s not going to directly kill anybody (unless the dilution refrigerator falls on them or something?).  It’s true that a full, scalable QC, if and when it’s achieved, will give a temporary advantage to people who want to break certain cryptographic codes.  The morality of that, of course, could strongly depend on whether the codebreakers are working for the “good guys” (like the Allies during WWII) or the “bad guys” (like, perhaps, Trump or Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping).

But in any case, there’s already a push to switch to new cryptographic codes that already exist and that we think are quantum-resistant.  An actual scalable QC on the horizon would of course massively accelerate that push.  And once people make the switch, we expect that security on the Internet will be more-or-less back where it started.

Meanwhile, the big upside potential from QCs is that they’ll provide an unprecedented ability to simulate physics and chemistry at the molecular level.  That could at least potentially help with designing new medicines, as well as new batteries and solar cells and carbon capture technologies—all things that the world desperately needs right now.

Also, the theory developed around QC has already led to many new and profound insights about physics and computation.  Some of us regard that as an inherent good, in the same way that art and music and literature are.

Now, one could argue that the climate crisis, or various other crises that our civilization faces, are so desperate that instead of working to build QCs, we should all just abandon our normal work and directly confront the crises, as (for example) Greta Thunberg is doing.  On some days I share that position.  But of course, were the position upheld, it would have implications not just for quantum computing researchers but for almost everyone on earth—including humanities teachers like yourself.

Best,
Scott

My New York Times op-ed on quantum supremacy

Wednesday, October 30th, 2019

Here it is.

I’d like to offer special thanks to the editor in charge, Eleanor Barkhorn, who commissioned this piece and then went way, way beyond the call of duty to get it right—including relaxing the usual length limit to let me squeeze in amplitudes and interference, and working late into the night to fix last-minute problems. Obviously I take sole responsibility for whatever errors remain.

Of course a lot of material still ended up on the cutting room floor, including a little riff about Andrew Yang’s tweet that because of quantum supremacy, now “no code is uncrackable,” as well as Ivanka Trump’s tweet giving credit for Google’s experiment (one that Google was working toward since 2015) partly to her father’s administration.

While I’m posting: those of a more technical bent might want to check out my new short preprint with UT undergraduate Sam Gunn, where we directly study the complexity-theoretic hardness of spoofing Google’s linear cross-entropy benchmark using a classical computer. Enjoy!

Quantum supremacy: the gloves are off

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

Links:
Google paper in Nature
New York Times article
IBM paper and blog post responding to Google’s announcement
Boaz Barak’s new post: “Boaz’s inferior classical inferiority FAQ”
Lipton and Regan’s post
My quantum supremacy interview with the BBC (featuring some of my fewest “uhms” and “ahs” ever!)
NEW: My preprint with Sam Gunn, On the Classical Hardness of Spoofing Linear Cross-Entropy Benchmarking
My interview on NPR affiliate WOSU (starts around 16:30)

When Google’s quantum supremacy paper leaked a month ago—not through Google’s error, but through NASA’s—I had a hard time figuring out how to cover the news here. I had to say something; on the other hand, I wanted to avoid any detailed technical analysis of the leaked paper, because I was acutely aware that my colleagues at Google were still barred by Nature‘s embargo rules from publicly responding to anything I or others said. (I was also one of the reviewers for the Nature paper, which put additional obligations on me.)

I ended up with Scott’s Supreme Quantum Supremacy FAQ, which tried to toe this impossible line by “answering general questions about quantum supremacy, and the consequences of its still-hypothetical achievement, in light of the leak.” It wasn’t an ideal solution—for one thing, because while I still regard Google’s sampling experiment as a historic milestone for our whole field, there are some technical issues, aspects that subsequent experiments (hopefully coming soon) will need to improve. Alas, the ground rules of my FAQ forced me to avoid such issues, which caused some readers to conclude mistakenly that I didn’t think there were any.

Now, though, the Google paper has come out as Nature‘s cover story, at the same time as there have been new technical developments—most obviously, the paper from IBM (see also their blog post) saying that they could simulate the Google experiment in 2.5 days, rather than the 10,000 years that Google had estimated.

(Yesterday I was deluged by emails asking me “whether I’d seen” IBM’s paper. As a science blogger, I try to respond to stuff pretty quickly when necessary, but I don’t—can’t—respond in Twitter time.)

So now the gloves are off. No more embargo. Time to address the technical stuff under the hood—which is the purpose of this post.

I’m going to assume, from this point on, that you already understand the basics of sampling-based quantum supremacy experiments, and that I don’t need to correct beginner-level misconceptions about what the term “quantum supremacy” does and doesn’t mean (no, it doesn’t mean scalability, fault-tolerance, useful applications, breaking public-key crypto, etc. etc.). If this is not the case, you could start (e.g.) with my FAQ, or with John Preskill’s excellent Quanta commentary.

Without further ado:

(1) So what about that IBM thing? Are random quantum circuits easy to simulate classically?

OK, so let’s carefully spell out what the IBM paper says. They argue that, by commandeering the full attention of Summit at Oak Ridge National Lab, the most powerful supercomputer that currently exists on Earth—one that fills the area of two basketball courts, and that (crucially) has 250 petabytes of hard disk space—one could just barely store the entire quantum state vector of Google’s 53-qubit Sycamore chip in hard disk.  And once one had done that, one could simulate the chip in ~2.5 days, more-or-less just by updating the entire state vector by brute force, rather than the 10,000 years that Google had estimated on the basis of my and Lijie Chen’s “Schrödinger-Feynman algorithm” (which can get by with less memory).

The IBM group understandably hasn’t actually done this yet—even though IBM set it up, the world’s #1 supercomputer isn’t just sitting around waiting for jobs! But I see little reason to doubt that their analysis is basically right. I don’t know why the Google team didn’t consider how such near-astronomical hard disk space would change their calculations; probably they wish they had.

I find this to be much, much better than IBM’s initial reaction to the Google leak, which was simply to dismiss the importance of quantum supremacy as a milestone. Designing better classical simulations is precisely how IBM and others should respond to Google’s announcement, and how I said a month ago that I hoped they would respond. If we set aside the pass-the-popcorn PR war (or even if we don’t), this is how science progresses.

But does IBM’s analysis mean that “quantum supremacy” hasn’t been achieved? No, it doesn’t—at least, not under any definition of “quantum supremacy” that I’ve ever used. The Sycamore chip took about 3 minutes to generate the ~5 million samples that were needed to pass the “linear cross-entropy benchmark”—the statistical test that Google applies to the outputs of its device.

(Technical note added: Google’s samples are extremely noisy—the actual distribution being sampled from is something like 0.998U+0.002D, where U is the uniform distribution and D is the hard distribution that you want. What this means, in practice, is that you need to take a number of samples that’s large compared to 1/0.0022, in order to extract a signal corresponding to D. But the good news is that Google can take that many samples in just a few minutes, since once the circuit has been loaded onto the chip, generating each sample takes only about 40 microseconds. And once you’ve done this, what hardness results we have for passing the linear cross-entropy test—to be discussed later in this post—apply basically just as well as if you’d taken a single noiseless sample.)

Anyway, you might notice that three minutes versus 2.5 days is still a quantum speedup by a factor of 1200. But even more relevant, I think, is to compare the number of “elementary operations.” Let’s generously count a FLOP (floating-point operation) as the equivalent of a quantum gate. Then by my estimate, we’re comparing ~5×109 quantum gates against ~2×1020 FLOPs—a quantum speedup by a factor of ~40 billion.

For me, though, the broader point is that neither party here—certainly not IBM—denies that the top-supercomputers-on-the-planet-level difficulty of classically simulating Google’s 53-qubit programmable chip really is coming from the exponential character of the quantum states in that chip, and nothing else. That’s what makes this back-and-forth fundamentally different from the previous one between D-Wave and the people who sought to simulate its devices classically. The skeptics, like me, didn’t much care what speedup over classical benchmarks there was or wasn’t today: we cared about the increase in the speedup as D-Wave upgraded its hardware, and the trouble was that we never saw a convincing case that there would be one. I’m a theoretical computer scientist, and this is what I believe: that after the constant factors have come and gone, what remains are asymptotic growth rates.

In the present case, while increasing the circuit depth won’t evade IBM’s “store everything to hard disk” strategy, increasing the number of qubits will. If Google, or someone else, upgraded from 53 to 55 qubits, that would apparently already be enough to exceed Summit’s 250-petabyte storage capacity. At 60 qubits, you’d need 33 Summits. At 70 qubits, enough Summits to fill a city … you get the idea.

From the beginning, it was clear that quantum supremacy would not be a milestone like the moon landing—something that’s achieved in a moment, and is then clear to everyone for all time. It would be more like eradicating measles: it could be achieved, then temporarily unachieved, then re-achieved. For by definition, quantum supremacy all about beating something—namely, classical computation—and the latter can, at least for a while, fight back.

As Boaz Barak put it to me, the current contest between IBM and Google is analogous to Kasparov versus Deep Blueexcept with the world-historic irony that IBM is playing the role of Kasparov! In other words, Kasparov can put up a heroic struggle, during a “transitional period” that lasts a year or two, but the fundamentals of the situation are that he’s toast. If Kasparov had narrowly beaten Deep Blue in 1997, rather than narrowly losing, the whole public narrative would likely have been different (“humanity triumphs over computers after all!”). Yet as Kasparov himself well knew, the very fact that the contest was close meant that, either way, human dominance would soon end for good.

Let me leave the last word on this to friend-of-the-blog Greg Kuperberg, who graciously gave me permission to quote his comments about the IBM paper.

I’m not entirely sure how embarrassed Google should feel that they overlooked this.   I’m sure that they would have been happier to anticipate it, and happier still if they had put more qubits on their chip to defeat it.   However, it doesn’t change their real achievement.

I respect the IBM paper, even if the press along with it seems more grouchy than necessary.   I tend to believe them that the Google team did not explore all avenues when they said that their 53 qubits aren’t classically simulable.   But if this is the best rebuttal, then you should still consider how much Google and IBM still agree on this as a proof-of-concept of QC.   This is still quantum David vs classical Goliath, in the extreme.   53 qubits is in some ways still just 53 bits, only enhanced with quantum randomness.  To answer those 53 qubits, IBM would still need entire days of computer time with the world’s fastest supercomputer, a 200-petaflop machine with hundreds of thousands of processing cores and trillions of high-speed transistors.   If we can confirm that the Google chip actually meets spec, but we need this much computer power to do it, then to me that’s about as convincing as a larger quantum supremacy demonstration that humanity can no longer confirm at all.

Honestly, I’m happy to give both Google and IBM credit for helping the field of QC, even if it is the result of a strange dispute.

I should mention that, even before IBM’s announcement, Johnnie Gray, a postdoc at Imperial College, gave a talk (abstract here) at Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information with a proposal for a different faster way to classically simulate quantum circuits like Google’s—in this case, by doing tensor network contraction more cleverly. Unlike both IBM’s proposed brute-force simulation, and the Schrödinger-Feynman algorithm that Google implemented, Gray’s algorithm (as far as we know now) would need to be repeated k times if you wanted k independent samples from the hard distribution. Partly because of this issue, Gray’s approach doesn’t currently look competitive for simulating thousands or millions of samples, but we’ll need to watch it and see what happens.

(2) Direct versus indirect verification.

The discussion of IBM’s proposed simulation brings us to a curious aspect of the Google paper—one that was already apparent when Nature sent me the paper for review back in August. Namely, Google took its supremacy experiments well past the point where even they themselves knew how to verify the results, by any classical computation that they knew how to perform feasibly (say, in less than 10,000 years).

So you might reasonably ask: if they couldn’t even verify the results, then how did they get to claim quantum speedups from those experiments? Well, they resorted to various gambits, which basically involved estimating the fidelity on quantum circuits that looked almost the same as the hard circuits, but happened to be easier to simulate classically, and then making the (totally plausible) assumption that that fidelity would be maintained on the hard circuits. Interestingly, they also cached their outputs and put them online (as part of the supplementary material to their Nature paper), in case it became feasible to verify them in the future.

Maybe you can now see where this is going. From Google’s perspective, IBM’s rainstorm comes with a big silver lining. Namely, by using Summit, hopefully it will now be possible to verify Google’s hardest (53-qubit and depth-20) sampling computations directly! This should provide an excellent test, since not even the Google group themselves would’ve known how to cheat and bias the results had they wanted to.

This whole episode has demonstrated the importance, when doing a sampling-based quantum supremacy experiment, of going deep into the regime where you can no longer classically verify the outputs, as weird as that sounds. Namely, you need to leave yourself a margin, in the likely event that the classical algorithms improve!

Having said that, I don’t mind revealing at this point that the lack of direct verification of the outputs, for the largest reported speedups, was my single biggest complaint when I reviewed Google’s Nature submission. It was because of my review that they added a paragraph explicitly pointing out that they did do direct verification for a smaller quantum speedup:

The largest circuits for which the fidelity can still be directly verified have 53 qubits and a simplified gate arrangement. Performing random circuit sampling on these at 0.8% fidelity takes one million cores 130 seconds, corresponding to a million-fold speedup of the quantum processor relative to a single core.

(An earlier version of this post misstated the numbers involved.)

(3) The asymptotic hardness of spoofing Google’s benchmark.

OK, but if Google thought that spoofing its test would take 10,000 years, using the best known classical algorithms running on the world’s top supercomputers, and it turns out instead that it could probably be done in more like 2.5 days, then how much else could’ve been missed? Will we find out next that Google’s benchmark can be classically spoofed in mere milliseconds?

Well, no one can rule that out, but we do have some reasons to think that it’s unlikely—and crucially, that even if it turned out to be true, one would just have to add 10 or 20 or 30 more qubits to make it no longer true. (We can’t be more definitive than that? Aye, such are the perils of life at a technological inflection point—and of computational complexity itself.)

The key point to understand here is that we really are talking about simulating a random quantum circuit, with no particular structure whatsoever. While such problems might have a theoretically efficient classical algorithm—i.e., one that runs in time polynomial in the number of qubits—I’d personally be much less surprised if you told me there was a polynomial-time classical algorithm for factoring. In the universe where amplitudes of random quantum circuits turn out to be efficiently computable—well, you might as well just tell me that P=PSPACE and be done with it.

Crucially, if you look at IBM’s approach to simulating quantum circuits classically, and Johnnie Gray’s approach, and Google’s approach, they could all be described as different flavors of “brute force.” That is, they all use extremely clever tricks to parallelize, shave off constant factors, make the best use of available memory, etc., but none involves any deep new mathematical insight that could roust BPP and BQP and the other complexity gods from their heavenly slumber. More concretely, none of these approaches seem to have any hope of “breaching the 2n barrier,” where n is the number of qubits in the quantum circuit to be simulated (assuming that the circuit depth is reasonably large). Mostly, they’re just trying to get down to that barrier, while taking the maximum advantage of whatever storage and connectivity and parallelism are there.

Ah, but at the end of the day, we only believe that Google’s Sycamore chip is solving a classically hard problem because of the statistical test that Google applies to its outputs: the so-called “Linear Cross-Entropy Benchmark,” which I described in Q3 of my FAQ. And even if we grant that calculating the output probabilities for a random quantum circuit is almost certainly classically hard, and sampling the output distribution of a random quantum circuit is almost certainly classically hard—still, couldn’t spoofing Google’s benchmark be classically easy?

This last question is where complexity theory can contribute something to the story. A couple weeks ago, UT undergraduate Sam Gunn and I adapted the hardness analysis from my and Lijie Chen’s 2017 paper “Complexity-Theoretic Foundations of Quantum Supremacy Experiments,” to talk directly about the classical hardness of spoofing the Linear Cross-Entropy benchmark. Our short paper about this should be on the arXiv later this week (or early next week, given that there are no arXiv updates on Friday or Saturday nights) here it is.

Briefly, Sam and I show that if you had a sub-2n classical algorithm to spoof the Linear Cross-Entropy benchmark, then you’d also have a sub-2n classical algorithm that, given as input a random quantum circuit, could estimate a specific output probability (for example, that of the all-0 string) with variance at least slightly (say, Ω(2-3n)) better than that of the trivial estimator that just always guesses 2-n. Or in other words: we show that spoofing Google’s benchmark is no easier than the general problem of nontrivially estimating amplitudes in random quantum circuits. Furthermore, this result automatically generalizes to the case of noisy circuits: all that the noise affects is the threshold for the Linear Cross-Entropy benchmark, and thus (indirectly) the number of samples one needs to take with the QC. Our result helps to explain why, indeed, neither IBM nor Johnnie Gray nor anyone else suggested any attack that’s specific to Google’s Linear Cross-Entropy benchmark: they all simply attack the general problem of calculating the final amplitudes.

(4) Why use Linear Cross-Entropy at all?

In the comments of my FAQ, some people wondered why Google chose the Linear Cross-Entropy benchmark specifically—especially since they’d used a different benchmark (multiplicative cross-entropy, which unlike the linear version actually is a cross-entropy) in their earlier papers. I asked John Martinis this question, and his answer was simply that linear cross-entropy had the lowest variance of any estimator they tried. Since I also like linear cross-entropy—it turns out, for example, to be convenient for the analysis of my certified randomness protocol—I’m 100% happy with their choice. Having said that, there are many other choices of benchmark that would’ve also worked fine, and with roughly the same level of theoretical justification.

(5) Controlled-Z versus iSWAP gates.

Another interesting detail from the Google paper is that, in their previous hardware, they could implement a particular 2-qubit gate called the Controlled-Z. For their quantum supremacy demonstration, on the other hand, they modified their hardware to implement a different 2-qubit gate called the iSWAP some weird combination of iSWAP and Controlled-Z; see the comments section for more. Now, this other gate has no known advantages over the Controlled-Z, for any applications like quantum simulation or Shor’s algorithm or Grover search. Why then did Google make the switch? Simply because, with certain classical simulation methods that they’d been considering, the simulation’s running time grows like 4 to the power of the number of these other gates, but only like 2 to the power of the number of Controlled-Z gates! In other words, they made this engineering choice purely and entirely to make a classical simulation of their device sweat more. This seems totally fine and entirely within the rules to me. (Alas, this choice has no effect on a proposed simulation method like IBM’s.)

(6) Gil Kalai’s objections.

Over the past month, Shtetl-Optimized regular and noted quantum computing skeptic Gil Kalai has been posting one objection to the Google experiment after another on his blog. Unlike the IBM group and many of Google’s other critics, Gil completely accepts the centrality of quantum supremacy as a goal. Indeed, he’s firmly predicted for years that quantum supremacy could never be achieved for fundamental reasons—and he agrees that the Google result, if upheld, would refute his worldview. Gil also has no dispute with the exponential classical hardness of the problem that Google is solving.

Instead, Gil—if we’re talking not about “steelmanning” his beliefs, but about what he himself actually said—has taken the position that the Google experiment must’ve been done wrong and will need to be retracted. He’s offered varying grounds for this. First he said that Google never computed the full histogram of probabilities with a smaller number of qubits (for which such an experiment is feasible), which would be an important sanity check. Except, it turns out they did do that, and it’s in their 2018 Science paper. Next he said that the experiment is invalid because the qubits have to be calibrated in a way that depends on the specific circuit to be applied. Except, this too turns out to be false: John Martinis explicitly confirmed for me that once the qubits are calibrated, you can run any circuit on them that you want. In summary, unlike the objections of the IBM group, so far I’ve found Gil’s objections to be devoid of scientific interest or merit.

Update #1: Alas, I’ll have limited availability today for answering comments, since we’ll be grading the midterm exam for my Intro to Quantum Information Science course! I’ll try to handle the backlog tomorrow (Thursday).

Update #2: Aaannd … timed to coincide with the Google paper, last night the group of Jianwei Pan and Chaoyang Lu put up a preprint on the arXiv reporting a BosonSampling experiment with 20 photons 14 photons observed out of 20 generated (the previous record had been 6 photons). At this stage of the quantum supremacy race, many had of course written off BosonSampling—or said that its importance was mostly historical, in that it inspired Google’s random circuit sampling effort.  I’m thrilled to see BosonSampling itself take such a leap; hopefully, this will eventually lead to a demonstration that BosonSampling was (is) a viable pathway to quantum supremacy as well.  And right now, with fault-tolerance still having been demonstrated in zero platforms, we need all the viable pathways we can get.  What an exciting day for the field.

Scott’s Supreme Quantum Supremacy FAQ!

Monday, September 23rd, 2019

You’ve seen the stories—in the Financial Times, Technology Review, CNET, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, or elsewhere—saying that a group at Google has now achieved quantum computational supremacy with a 53-qubit superconducting device. While these stories are easy to find, I’m not going to link to them here, for the simple reason that none of them were supposed to exist yet.

As the world now knows, Google is indeed preparing a big announcement about quantum supremacy, to coincide with the publication of its research paper in a high-profile journal (which journal? you can probably narrow it down to two). This will hopefully happen within a month.

Meanwhile, though, NASA, which has some contributors to the work, inadvertently posted an outdated version of the Google paper on a public website. It was there only briefly, but long enough to make it to the Financial Times, my inbox, and millions of other places. Fact-free pontificating about what it means has predictably proliferated.

The world, it seems, is going to be denied its clean “moon landing” moment, wherein the Extended Church-Turing Thesis gets experimentally obliterated within the space of a press conference. This is going to be more like the Wright Brothers’ flight—about which rumors and half-truths leaked out in dribs and drabs between 1903 and 1908, the year Will and Orville finally agreed to do public demonstration flights. (This time around, though, it thankfully won’t take that long to clear everything up!)

I’ve known about what was in the works for a couple months now; it was excruciating not being able to blog about it. Though sworn to secrecy, I couldn’t resist dropping some hints here and there (did you catch any?)—for example, in my recent Bernays Lectures in Zürich, a lecture series whose entire structure built up to the brink of this moment.

This post is not an official announcement or confirmation of anything. Though the lightning may already be visible, the thunder belongs to the group at Google, at a time and place of its choosing.

Rather, because so much misinformation is swirling around, what I thought I’d do here, in my role as blogger and “public intellectual,” is offer Scott’s Supreme Quantum Supremacy FAQ. You know, just in case you were randomly curious about the topic of quantum supremacy, or wanted to know what the implications would be if some search engine company based in Mountain View or wherever were hypothetically to claim to have achieved quantum supremacy.

Without further ado, then:

Q1. What is quantum computational supremacy?

Often abbreviated to just “quantum supremacy,” the term refers to the use of a quantum computer to solve some well-defined set of problems that would take orders of magnitude longer to solve with any currently known algorithms running on existing classical computers—and not for incidental reasons, but for reasons of asymptotic quantum complexity. The emphasis here is on being as sure as possible that the problem really was solved quantumly and really is classically intractable, and ideally achieving the speedup soon (with the noisy, non-universal QCs of the present or very near future). If the problem is also useful for something, then so much the better, but that’s not at all necessary. The Wright Flyer and the Fermi pile weren’t useful in themselves.

Q2. If Google has indeed achieved quantum supremacy, does that mean that now “no code is uncrackable”, as Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang recently tweeted?

No, it doesn’t. (But I still like Yang’s candidacy.)

There are two issues here. First, the devices currently being built by Google, IBM, and others have 50-100 qubits and no error-correction. Running Shor’s algorithm to break the RSA cryptosystem would require several thousand logical qubits. With known error-correction methods, that could easily translate into millions of physical qubits, and those probably of a higher quality than any that exist today. I don’t think anyone is close to that, and we have no idea how long it will take.

But the second issue is that, even in a hypothetical future with scalable, error-corrected QCs, on our current understanding they’ll only be able to crack some codes, not all of them. By an unfortunate coincidence, the public-key codes that they can crack include most of what we currently use to secure the Internet: RSA, Diffie-Hellman, elliptic curve crypto, etc. But symmetric-key crypto should only be minimally affected. And there are even candidates for public-key cryptosystems (for example, based on lattices) that no one knows how to break quantumly after 20+ years of trying, and some efforts underway now to start migrating to those systems. For more, see for example my letter to Rebecca Goldstein.

Q3. What calculation is Google planning to do, or has it already done, that’s believed to be classically hard?

So, I can tell you, but I’ll feel slightly sheepish doing so. The calculation is: a “challenger” generates a random quantum circuit C (i.e., a random sequence of 1-qubit and nearest-neighbor 2-qubit gates, of depth perhaps 20, acting on a 2D grid of n = 50 to 60 qubits). The challenger then sends C to the quantum computer, and asks it apply C to the all-0 initial state, measure the result in the {0,1} basis, send back whatever n-bit string was observed, and repeat some thousands or millions of times. Finally, using its knowledge of C, the classical challenger applies a statistical test to check whether the outputs are consistent with the QC having done this.

So, this is not a problem like factoring with a single right answer. The circuit C gives rise to some probability distribution, call it DC, over n-bit strings, and the problem is to output samples from that distribution. In fact, there will typically be 2n strings in the support of DC—so many that, if the QC is working as expected, the same output will never be observed twice. A crucial point, though, is that the distribution DC is not uniform. Some strings enjoy constructive interference of amplitudes and therefore have larger probabilities, while others suffer destructive interference and have smaller probabilities. And even though we’ll only see a number of samples that’s tiny compared to 2n, we can check whether the samples preferentially cluster among the strings that are predicted to be likelier, and thereby build up our confidence that something classically intractable is being done.

So, tl;dr, the quantum computer is simply asked to apply a random (but known) sequence of quantum operations—not because we intrinsically care about the result, but because we’re trying to prove that it can beat a classical computer at some well-defined task.

Q4. But if the quantum computer is just executing some random garbage circuit, whose only purpose is to be hard to simulate classically, then who cares? Isn’t this a big overhyped nothingburger?

No. As I put it the other day, it’s not an everythingburger, but it’s certainly at least a somethingburger!

It’s like, have a little respect for the immensity of what we’re talking about here, and for the terrifying engineering that’s needed to make it reality. Before quantum supremacy, by definition, the QC skeptics can all laugh to each other that, for all the billions of dollars spent over 20+ years, still no quantum computer has even once been used to solve any problem faster than your laptop could solve it, or at least not in any way that depended on its being a quantum computer. In a post-quantum-supremacy world, that’s no longer the case. A superposition involving 250 or 260 complex numbers has been computationally harnessed, using time and space resources that are minuscule compared to 250 or 260.

I keep bringing up the Wright Flyer only because the chasm between what we’re talking about, and the dismissiveness I’m seeing in some corners of the Internet, is kind of breathtaking to me. It’s like, if you believed that useful air travel was fundamentally impossible, then seeing a dinky wooden propeller plane keep itself aloft wouldn’t refute your belief … but it sure as hell shouldn’t reassure you either.

Was I right to worry, years ago, that the constant drumbeat of hype about much less significant QC milestones would wear out people’s patience, so that they’d no longer care when something newsworthy finally did happen?

Q5. Years ago, you scolded the masses for being super-excited about D-Wave, and its claims to get huge quantum speedups for optimization problems via quantum annealing. Today you scold the masses for not being super-excited about quantum supremacy. Why can’t you stay consistent?

Because my goal is not to move the “excitement level” in some uniformly preferred direction, it’s to be right! With hindsight, would you say that I was mostly right about D-Wave, even when raining on that particular parade made me unpopular in some circles? Well, I’m trying to be right about quantum supremacy too.

Q6. If quantum supremacy calculations just involve sampling from probability distributions, how do you check that they were done correctly?

Glad you asked! This is the subject of a fair amount of theory that I and others developed over the last decade. I already gave you the short version in my answer to Q3: you check by doing statistics on the samples that the QC returned, to verify that they’re preferentially clustered in the “peaks” of the chaotic probability distribution DC. One convenient way of doing this, which Google calls the “linear cross-entropy test,” is simply to sum up Pr[C outputs si] over all the samples s1,…,sk that the QC returned, and then to declare the test a “success” if and only if the sum exceeds some threshold—say, bk/2n, for some constant b strictly between 1 and 2.

Admittedly, in order to apply this test, you need to calculate the probabilities Pr[C outputs si] on your classical computer—and the only known ways to calculate them require brute force and take ~2n time. Is that a showstopper? No, not if n is 50, and you’re Google and are able to handle numbers like 250 (although not 21000, which exceeds a googol, har har). By running a huge cluster of classical cores for (say) a month, you can eventually verify the outputs that your QC produced in a few seconds—while also seeing that the QC was many orders of magnitude faster. However, this does mean that sampling-based quantum supremacy experiments are almost specifically designed for ~50-qubit devices like the ones being built right now. Even with 100 qubits, we wouldn’t know how to verify the results using all the classical computing power available on earth.

(Let me stress that this issue is specific to sampling experiments like the ones that are currently being done. If Shor’s algorithm factored a 2000-digit number, it would be easy to check the result by simply multiplying the claimed factors and running a primality test on them. Likewise, if a QC were used to simulate some complicated biomolecule, you could check its results by comparing them to experiment.)

Q7. Wait. If classical computers can only check the results of a quantum supremacy experiment, in a regime where the classical computers can still simulate the experiment (albeit extremely slowly), then how do you get to claim “quantum supremacy”?

Come on. With a 53-qubit chip, it’s perfectly feasible to see a speedup by a factor of many millions, in a regime where you can still directly verify the outputs, and also to see that the speedup is growing exponentially with the number of qubits, exactly as asymptotic analysis would predict. This isn’t marginal.

Q8. Is there a mathematical proof that no fast classical algorithm could possibly spoof the results of a sampling-based quantum supremacy experiment?

Not at present. But that’s not quantum supremacy researchers’ fault! As long as theoretical computer scientists can’t even prove basic conjectures like P≠NP or P≠PSPACE, there’s no hope of ruling out a fast classical simulation unconditionally. The best we can hope for are conditional hardness results. And we have indeed managed to prove some such results—see for example the BosonSampling paper, or the Bouland et al. paper on average-case #P-hardness of calculating amplitudes in random circuits, or my paper with Lijie Chen (“Complexity-Theoretic Foundations of Quantum Supremacy Experiments”). The biggest theoretical open problem in this area, in my opinion, is to prove better conditional hardness results.

Q9. Does sampling-based quantum supremacy have any applications in itself?

When people were first thinking about this subject, it seemed pretty obvious that the answer was “no”! (I know because I was one of the people.) Recently, however, the situation has changed—for example, because of my certified randomness protocol, which shows how a sampling-based quantum supremacy experiment could almost immediately be repurposed to generate bits that can be proven to be random to a skeptical third party (under computational assumptions). This, in turn, has possible applications to proof-of-stake cryptocurrencies and other cryptographic protocols. I’m hopeful that more such applications will be discovered in the near future.

Q10. If the quantum supremacy experiments are just generating random bits, isn’t that uninteresting? Isn’t it trivial to convert qubits into random bits, just by measuring them?

The key is that a quantum supremacy experiment doesn’t generate uniform random bits. Instead, it samples from some complicated, correlated probability distribution over 50- or 60-bit strings. In my certified randomness protocol, the deviations from uniformity play a central role in how the QC convinces a classical skeptic that it really was sampling the bits randomly, rather than in some secretly deterministic way (e.g., using a pseudorandom generator).

Q11. Haven’t decades of quantum-mechanical experiments–for example, the ones that violated the Bell inequality–already demonstrated quantum supremacy?

This is purely a confusion over words. Those other experiments demonstrated other forms of “quantum supremacy”: for example, in the case of Bell inequality violations, what you could call “quantum correlational supremacy.” They did not demonstrate quantum computational supremacy, meaning doing something that’s infeasible to simulate using a classical computer (where the classical simulation has no restrictions of spatial locality or anything else of that kind). Today, when people use the phrase “quantum supremacy,” it’s generally short for quantum computational supremacy.

Q12. Even so, there are countless examples of materials and chemical reactions that are hard to classically simulate, as well as special-purpose quantum simulators (like those of Lukin’s group at Harvard). Why don’t these already count as quantum computational supremacy?

Under some people’s definitions of “quantum computational supremacy,” they do! The key difference with Google’s effort is that they have a fully programmable device—one that you can program with an arbitrary sequence of nearest-neighbor 2-qubit gates, just by sending the appropriate signals from your classical computer.

In other words, it’s no longer open to the QC skeptics to sneer that, sure, there are quantum systems that are hard to simulate classically, but that’s just because nature is hard to simulate, and you don’t get to arbitrarily redefine whatever random chemical you find in the wild to be a “computer for simulating itself.” Under any sane definition, the superconducting devices that Google, IBM, and others are now building are indeed “computers.”

Q13. Did you (Scott Aaronson) invent the concept of quantum supremacy?

No. I did play some role in developing it, which led to Sabine Hossenfelder among others generously overcrediting me for the whole idea. The term “quantum supremacy” was coined by John Preskill in 2012, though in some sense the core concept goes back to the beginnings of quantum computing itself in the early 1980s. In 1993, Bernstein and Vazirani explicitly pointed out the severe apparent tension between quantum mechanics and the Extended Church-Turing Thesis of classical computer science. Then, in 1994, the use of Shor’s algorithm to factor a huge number became the quantum supremacy experiment par excellence—albeit, one that’s still (in 2019) much too hard to perform.

The key idea of instead demonstrating quantum supremacy using a sampling problem was, as far as I know, first suggested by Barbara Terhal and David DiVincenzo, in a farsighted paper from 2002. The “modern” push for sampling-based supremacy experiments started around 2011, when Alex Arkhipov and I published our paper on BosonSampling, and (independently of us) Bremner, Jozsa, and Shepherd published their paper on the commuting Hamiltonians model. These papers showed, not only that “simple,” non-universal quantum systems can solve apparently-hard sampling problems, but also that an efficient classical algorithm for the same sampling problems would imply a collapse of the polynomial hierarchy. Arkhipov and I also made a start toward arguing that even the approximate versions of quantum sampling problems can be classically hard.

As far as I know, the idea of “Random Circuit Sampling”—that is, generating your hard sampling problem by just picking a random sequence of 2-qubit gates in (say) a superconducting architecture—originated in an email thread that I started in December 2015, which also included John Martinis, Hartmut Neven, Sergio Boixo, Ashley Montanaro, Michael Bremner, Richard Jozsa, Aram Harrow, Greg Kuperberg, and others. The thread was entitled “Hard sampling problems with 40 qubits,” and my email began “Sorry for the spam.” I then discussed some advantages and disadvantages of three options for demonstrating sampling-based quantum supremacy: (1) random circuits, (2) commuting Hamiltonians, and (3) BosonSampling. After Greg Kuperberg chimed in to support option (1), a consensus quickly formed among the participants that (1) was indeed the best option from an engineering standpoint—and that, if the theoretical analysis wasn’t yet satisfactory for (1), then that was something we could remedy.

[Update: Sergio Boixo tells me that, internally, the Google group had been considering the idea of random circuit sampling since February 2015, even before my email thread. This doesn’t surprise me: while there are lots of details that had to be worked out, the idea itself is an extremely natural one.]

After that, the Google group did a huge amount of analysis of random circuit sampling, both theoretical and numerical, while Lijie Chen and I and Bouland et al. supplied different forms of complexity-theoretic evidence for the problem’s classical hardness.

Q14. If quantum supremacy was achieved, what would it mean for the QC skeptics?

I wouldn’t want to be them right now! They could retreat to the position that of course quantum supremacy is possible (who ever claimed that it wasn’t? surely not them!), that the real issue has always been quantum error-correction. And indeed, some of them have consistently maintained that position all along. But others, including my good friend Gil Kalai, are on record, right here on this blog predicting that even quantum supremacy can never be achieved for fundamental reasons. I won’t let them wiggle out of it now.

[Update: As many of you will have seen, Gil Kalai has taken the position that the Google result won’t stand and will need to be retracted. He asked for more data: specifically, a complete histogram of the output probabilities for a smaller number of qubits. This turns out to be already available, in a Science paper from 2018.]

Q15. What’s next?

If it’s achieved quantum supremacy, then I think the Google group already has the requisite hardware to demonstrate my protocol for generating certified random bits. And that’s indeed one of the very next things they’re planning to do.

[Addendum: Also, of course, the evidence for quantum supremacy itself can be made stronger and various loopholes closed—for example, by improving the fidelity so that fewer samples need to be taken (something that Umesh Vazirani tells me he’d like to see), by having the circuit C be generated and the outputs verified by a skeptic external to Google. and simply by letting more time pass, so outsiders can have a crack at simulating the results classically. My personal guess is that the basic picture is going to stand, but just like with the first experiments that claimed to violate the Bell inequality, there’s still plenty of room to force the skeptics into a tinier corner.]

Beyond that, one obvious next milestone would be to use a programmable QC, with (say) 50-100 qubits, to do some useful quantum simulation (say, of a condensed-matter system) much faster than any known classical method could do it. A second obvious milestone would be to demonstrate the use of quantum error-correction, to keep an encoded qubit alive for longer than the underlying physical qubits remain alive. There’s no doubt that Google, IBM, and the other players will now be racing toward both of these milestones.

[Update: Steve Girvin reminds me that the Yale group has already achieved quantum error-correction “beyond the break-even point,” albeit in a bosonic system rather than superconducting qubits. So perhaps a better way to phrase the next milestone would be: achieve quantum computational supremacy and useful quantum error-correction in the same system.]

Another update: I thought this IEEE Spectrum piece gave a really nice overview of the issues.

Last update: John Preskill’s Quanta column about quantum supremacy is predictably excellent (and possibly a bit more accessible than this FAQ).