Archive for the ‘Quantum’ Category

Because you asked: the Simulation Hypothesis has not been falsified; remains unfalsifiable

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

By email, by Twitter, even as the world was convulsed by tragedy, the inquiries poured in yesterday about a different topic entirely: Scott, did physicists really just prove that the universe is not a computer simulation—that we can’t be living in the Matrix?

What prompted this was a rash of popular articles like this one (“Researchers claim to have found proof we are NOT living in a simulation”).  The articles were all spurred by a recent paper in Science Advances: Quantized gravitational responses, the sign problem, and quantum complexity, by Zohar Ringel of Hebrew University and Dmitry L. Kovrizhin of Oxford.

I’ll tell you what: before I comment, why don’t I just paste the paper’s abstract here.  I invite you to read it—not the whole paper, just the abstract, but paying special attention to the sentences—and then make up your own mind about whether it supports the interpretation that all the popular articles put on it.

Ready?  Set?

Abstract: It is believed that not all quantum systems can be simulated efficiently using classical computational resources.  This notion is supported by the fact that it is not known how to express the partition function in a sign-free manner in quantum Monte Carlo (QMC) simulations for a large number of important problems.  The answer to the question—whether there is a fundamental obstruction to such a sign-free representation in generic quantum systems—remains unclear.  Focusing on systems with bosonic degrees of freedom, we show that quantized gravitational responses appear as obstructions to local sign-free QMC.  In condensed matter physics settings, these responses, such as thermal Hall conductance, are associated with fractional quantum Hall effects.  We show that similar arguments also hold in the case of spontaneously broken time-reversal (TR) symmetry such as in the chiral phase of a perturbed quantum Kagome antiferromagnet.  The connection between quantized gravitational responses and the sign problem is also manifested in certain vertex models, where TR symmetry is preserved.

For those tuning in from home, the “sign problem” is an issue that arises when, for example, you’re trying to use the clever trick known as Quantum Monte Carlo (QMC) to learn about the ground state of a quantum system using a classical computer—but where you needed probabilities, which are real numbers from 0 to 1, your procedure instead spits out numbers some of which are negative, and which you can therefore no longer use to define a sensible sampling process.  (In some sense, it’s no surprise that this would happen when you’re trying to simulate quantum mechanics, which of course is all about generalizing the rules of probability in a way that involves negative and even complex numbers!  The surprise, rather, is that QMC lets you avoid the sign problem as often as it does.)

Anyway, this is all somewhat far from my expertise, but insofar as I understand the paper, it looks like a serious contribution to our understanding of the sign problem, and why local changes of basis can fail to get rid of it when QMC is used to simulate certain bosonic systems.  It will surely interest QMC experts.

OK, but does any of this prove that the universe isn’t a computer simulation, as the popular articles claim (and as the original paper does not)?

It seems to me that, to get from here to there, you’d need to overcome four huge difficulties, any one of which would be fatal by itself, and which are logically independent of each other.

  1. As a computer scientist, one thing that leapt out at me, is that Ringel and Kovrizhin’s paper is fundamentally about computational complexity—specifically, about which quantum systems can and can’t be simulated in polynomial time on a classical computer—yet it’s entirely innocent of the language and tools of complexity theory.  There’s no BQP, no QMA, no reduction-based hardness argument anywhere in sight, and no clearly-formulated request for one either.  Instead, everything is phrased in terms of the failure of one specific algorithmic framework (namely QMC)—and within that framework, only “local” transformations of the physical degrees of freedom are considered, not nonlocal ones that could still be accessible to polynomial-time algorithms.  Of course, one does whatever one needs to do to get a result.
    To their credit, the authors do seem aware that a language for discussing all possible efficient algorithms exists.  They write, for example, of a “common understanding related to computational complexity classes” that some quantum systems are hard to simulate, and specifically of the existence of systems that support universal quantum computation.  So rather than criticize the authors for this limitation of their work, I view their paper as a welcome invitation for closer collaboration between the quantum complexity theory and quantum Monte Carlo communities, which approach many of the same questions from extremely different angles.  As official ambassador between the two communities, I nominate Matt Hastings.
  2. OK, but even if the paper did address computational complexity head-on, about the most it could’ve said is that computer scientists generally believe that BPP≠BQP (i.e., that quantum computers can solve more decision problems in polynomial time than classical probabilistic ones); and that such separations are provable in the query complexity and communication complexity worlds; and that at any rate, quantum computers can solve exact sampling problems that are classically hard unless the polynomial hierarchy collapses (as pointed out in the BosonSampling paper, and independently by Bremner, Jozsa, Shepherd).  Alas, until someone proves P≠PSPACE, there’s no hope for an unconditional proof that quantum computers can’t be efficiently simulated by classical ones.
    (Incidentally, the paper comments, “Establishing an obstruction to a classical simulation is a rather ill-defined task.”  I beg to differ: it’s not ill-defined; it’s just ridiculously hard!)
  3. OK, but suppose it were proved that BPP≠BQP—and for good measure, suppose it were also experimentally demonstrated that scalable quantum computing is possible in our universe.  Even then, one still wouldn’t by any stretch have ruled out that the universe was a computer simulation!  For as many of the people who emailed me asked themselves (but as the popular articles did not), why not just imagine that the universe is being simulated on a quantum computer?  Like, duh?
  4. Finally: even if, for some reason, we disallowed using a quantum computer to simulate the universe, that still wouldn’t rule out the simulation hypothesis.  For why couldn’t God, using Her classical computer, spend a trillion years to simulate one second as subjectively perceived by us?  After all, what is exponential time to She for whom all eternity is but an eyeblink?

Anyway, if it weren’t for all four separate points above, then sure, physicists would have now proved that we don’t live in the Matrix.

I do have a few questions of my own, for anyone who came here looking for my reaction to the ‘news’: did you really need me to tell you all this?  How much of it would you have figured out on your own, just by comparing the headlines of the popular articles to the descriptions (however garbled) of what was actually done?  How obvious does something need to be, before it no longer requires an ‘expert’ to certify it as such?  If I write 500 posts like this one, will the 501st post basically just write itself?

Asking for a friend.

Comment Policy: I welcome discussion about the Ringel-Dovrizhin paper; what might’ve gone wrong with its popularization; QMC; the sign problem; the computational complexity of condensed-matter problems more generally; and the relevance or irrelevance of work on these topics to broader questions about the simulability of the universe.  But as a little experiment in blog moderation, I won’t allow comments that just philosophize in general about whether or not the universe is a simulation, without making further contact with the actual content of this post.  We’ve already had the latter conversation here—probably, like, every week for the last decade—and I’m ready for something new.

GapP, Oracles, and Quantum Supremacy

Friday, September 1st, 2017

Let me start with a few quick announcements before the main entrée:

First, the website is now live!  Thanks so much to my friend Adam Chalmers for setting it up.  Please try it out on your favorite P vs. NP solution paper—I think you’ll be impressed by how well our secret validation algorithm performs.

Second, some readers might enjoy a YouTube video of me lecturing about the computability theory of closed timelike curves, from the Workshop on Computational Complexity and High Energy Physics at the University of Maryland a month ago.  Other videos from the workshop—including of talks by John Preskill, Daniel Harlow, Stephen Jordan, and other names known around Shtetl-Optimized, and of a panel discussion in which I participated—are worth checking out as well.  Thanks so much to Stephen for organizing such a great workshop!

Third, thanks to everyone who’s emailed to ask whether I’m holding up OK with Hurricane Harvey, and whether I know how to swim (I do).  As it happens, I haven’t been in Texas for two months—I spent most of the summer visiting NYU and doing other travel, and this year, Dana and I are doing an early sabbatical at Tel Aviv University.  However, I understand from friends that Austin, being several hours’ drive further inland, got nothing compared to what Houston did, and that UT is open on schedule for the fall semester.  Hopefully our house is still standing as well!  Our thoughts go to all those affected by the disaster in Houston.  Eventually, the Earth’s rapidly destabilizing climate almost certainly means that Austin will be threatened as well by “500-year events” happening every year or two, as for that matter will a large portion of the earth’s surface.  For now, though, Austin lives to be weird another day.

GapP, Oracles, and Quantum Supremacy

by Scott Aaronson

Stuart Kurtz 60th Birthday Conference, Columbia, South Carolina

August 20, 2017

It’s great to be here, to celebrate the life and work of Stuart Kurtz, which could never be … eclipsed … by anything.

I wanted to say something about work in structural complexity and counting complexity and oracles that Stuart was involved with “back in the day,” and how that work plays a major role in issues that concern us right now in quantum computing.  A major goal for the next few years is the unfortunately-named Quantum Supremacy.  What this means is to get a clear quantum speedup, for some task: not necessarily a useful task, but something that we can be as confident as possible is classically hard.  For example, consider the 49-qubit superconducting chip that Google is planning to fabricate within the next year or so.  This won’t yet be good enough for running Shor’s algorithm, to factor numbers of any interesting size, but it hopefully will be good enough to sample from a probability distribution over n-bit strings—in this case, 49-bit strings—that’s hard to sample from classically, taking somewhere on the order of 249 steps.

Furthermore, the evidence that that sort of thing is indeed classically hard, might actually be stronger than the evidence that factoring is classically hard.  As I like to say, a fast classical factoring algorithm would “merely” collapse the world’s electronic commerce—as far as we know, it wouldn’t collapse the polynomial hierarchy!  By contrast, a fast classical algorithm to simulate quantum sampling would collapse the polynomial hierarchy, assuming the simulation is exact.  Let me first go over the argument for that, and then explain some of the more recent things we’ve learned.

Our starting point will be two fundamental complexity classes, #P and GapP.

#P is the class of all nonnegative integer functions f, for which there exists a nondeterministic polynomial-time Turing machine M such that f(x) equals the number of accepting paths of M(x).  Less formally, #P is the class of problems that boil down to summing up an exponential number of nonnegative terms, each of which is efficiently computable individually.

GapP—introduced by Fenner, Fortnow, and Kurtz in 1992—can be defined as the set {f-g : f,g∈#P}; that is, the closure of #P under subtraction.  Equivalently, GapP is the class of problems that boil down to summing up an exponential number of terms, each of which is efficiently computable individually, but which could be either positive or negative, and which can therefore cancel each other out.  As you can see, GapP is a class that in some sense anticipates quantum computing!

For our purposes, the most important difference between #P and GapP is that #P functions can at least be multiplicatively approximated in the class BPPNP, by using Stockmeyer’s technique of approximating counting with universal hash functions.  By contrast, even if you just want to approximate a GapP function to within (say) a factor of 2—or for that matter, just decide whether a GapP function is positive or negative—it’s not hard to see that that’s already a #P-hard problem.  For, supposing we had an oracle to solve this problem, we could then shift the sum this way and that by adding positive and negative dummy terms, and use binary search, to zero in on the sum’s exact value in polynomial time.

It’s also not hard to see that a quantum computation can encode an arbitrary GapP function in one of its amplitudes.  Indeed, let s:{0,1}n→{1,-1} be any Boolean function that’s given by a polynomial-size circuit.  Then consider the quantum circuit below.

When we run this circuit, the probability that we see the all-0 string as output is

$$ \left( \frac{1}{\sqrt{2^n}} \sum_{z\in \{0,1\}^n} s(z) \right)^2 = \frac{1}{2^n} \sum_{z,w\in \{0,1\}^n} s(z) s(w) $$

which is clearly in GapP, and clearly #P-hard even to approximate to within a multiplicative factor.

By contrast, suppose we had a probabilistic polynomial-time classical algorithm, call it M, to sample the output distribution of the above quantum circuit.  Then we could rewrite the above probability as Prr[M(r) outputs 0…0], where r consists of the classical random bits used by M.  This is again an exponentially large sum, with one term for each possible r value—but now it’s a sum of nonnegative terms (probabilities), which is therefore approximable in BPPNP.

We can state the upshot as follows.  Let ExactSampBPP be the class of sampling problems—that is, families of probability distributions {Dx}x, one for each input x∈{0,1}n—for which there exists a polynomial-time randomized algorithm that outputs a sample exactly from Dx, in time polynomial in |x|.  Let ExactSampBQP be the same thing except that we allow a polynomial-time quantum algorithm.  Then we have that, if ExactSampBPP = ExactSampBQP, then squared sums of both positive and negative terms, could efficiently be rewritten as sums of nonnegative terms only—and hence P#P=BPPNP.  This, in turn, would collapse the polynomial hierarchy to the third level, by Toda’s Theorem that PH⊆P#P, together with the result BPPNP⊆∑3.  To summarize:

Theorem 1.  Quantum computers can efficiently solve exact sampling problems that are classically hard unless the polynomial hierarchy collapses.

(In fact, the argument works not only if the classical algorithm exactly samples Dx, but if it samples from any distribution in which the probabilities are multiplicatively close to Dx‘s.  If we really only care about exact sampling, then we can strengthen the conclusion to get that PH collapses to the second level.)

This sort of reasoning was implicit in several early works, including those of Fenner et al. and Terhal and DiVincenzo.  It was made fully explicit in my paper with Alex Arkhipov on BosonSampling in 2011, and in the independent work of Bremner, Jozsa, and Shepherd on the IQP model.  These works actually showed something stronger, which is that we get a collapse of PH, not merely from a fast classical algorithm to simulate arbitrary quantum systems, but from fast classical algorithms to simulate various special quantum systems.  In the case of BosonSampling, that special system is a collection of identical, non-interacting photons passing through a network of beamsplitters, then being measured at the very end to count the number of photons in each mode.  In the case of IQP, the special system is a collection of qubits that are prepared, subjected to some commuting Hamiltonians acting on various subsets of the qubits, and then measured.  These special systems don’t seem to be capable of universal quantum computation (or for that matter, even universal classical computation!)—and correspondingly, many of them seem easier to realize in the lab than a full universal quantum computer.

From an experimental standpoint, though, all these results are unsatisfactory, because they all talk only about the classical hardness of exact (or very nearly exact) sampling—and indeed, the arguments are based around the hardness of estimating just a single, exponentially-small amplitude.  But any real experiment will have tons of noise and inaccuracy, so it seems only fair to let the classical simulation be subject to serious noise and inaccuracy as well—but as soon as we do, the previous argument collapses.

Thus, from the very beginning, Alex Arkhipov and I took it as our “real” goal to show, under some reasonable assumption, that there’s a distribution D that a polynomial-time quantum algorithm can sample from, but such that no polynomial-time classical algorithm can sample from any distribution that’s even ε-close to D in variation distance.  Indeed, this goal is what led us to BosonSampling in the first place: we knew that we needed amplitudes that were not only #P-hard but “robustly” #P-hard; we knew that the permanent of an n×n matrix (at least over finite fields) was the canonical example of a “robustly” #P-hard function; and finally, we knew that systems of identical non-interacting bosons, such as photons, gave rise to amplitudes that were permanents in an extremely natural way.  The fact that photons actually exist in the physical world, and that our friends with quantum optics labs like to do experiments with them, was just a nice bonus!

A bit more formally, let ApproxSampBPP be the class of sampling problems for which there exists a classical algorithm that, given an input x∈{0,1}n and a parameter ε>0, samples a distribution that’s at most  away from Dx in variation distance, in time polynomial in n and 1/ε.  Let ApproxSampBQP be the same except that we allow a quantum algorithm.  Then the “dream” result that we’d love to prove—both then and now—is the following.

Strong Quantum Supremacy Conjecture.  If ApproxSampBPP = ApproxSampBQP, then the polynomial hierarchy collapses.

Unfortunately, Alex and I were only able to prove this conjecture assuming a further hypothesis, about the permanents of i.i.d. Gaussian matrices.

Theorem 2 (A.-Arkhipov).  Given an n×n matrix X of independent complex Gaussian entries, each of mean 0 and variance 1, assume it’s a #P-hard problem to approximate |Per(X)|2 to within ±ε⋅n!, with probability at least 1-δ over the choice of X, in time polynomial in n, 1/ε, and 1/δ.  Then the Strong Quantum Supremacy Conjecture holds.  Indeed, more than that: in such a case, even a fast approximate classical simulation of BosonSampling, in particular, would imply P#P=BPPNP and hence a collapse of PH.

Alas, after some months of effort, we were unable to prove the needed #P-hardness result for Gaussian permanents, and it remains an outstanding open problem—there’s not even a consensus as to whether it should be true or false.  Note that there is a famous polynomial-time classical algorithm to approximate the permanents of nonnegative matrices, due to Jerrum, Sinclair, and Vigoda, but that algorithm breaks down for matrices with negative or complex entries.  This is once again the power of cancellations, the difference between #P and GapP.

Frustratingly, if we want the exact permanents of i.i.d. Gaussian matrices, we were able to prove that that’s #P-hard; and if we want the approximate permanents of arbitrary matrices, we also know that that’s #P-hard—it’s only when we have approximation and random inputs in the same problem that we no longer have the tools to prove #P-hardness.

In the meantime, one can also ask a meta-question.  How hard should it be to prove the Strong Quantum Supremacy Conjecture?  Were we right to look at slightly exotic objects, like the permanents of Gaussian matrices?  Or could Strong Quantum Supremacy have a “pure, abstract complexity theory proof”?

Well, one way to formalize that question is to ask whether Strong Quantum Supremacy has a relativizing proof, a proof that holds in the presence of an arbitrary oracle.  Alex and I explicitly raised that as an open problem in our BosonSampling paper.

Note that “weak” quantum supremacy—i.e., the statement that ExactSampBPP = ExactSampBQP collapses the polynomial hierarchy—has a relativizing proof, namely the proof that I sketched earlier.  All the ingredients that we used—Toda’s Theorem, Stockmeyer approximate counting, simple manipulations of quantum circuits—were relativizing ingredients.  By contrast, all the way back in 1998, Fortnow and Rogers proved the following.

Theorem 3 (Fortnow and Rogers).  There exists an oracle relative to which P=BQP and yet PH is infinite.

In other words, if you want to prove that P=BQP collapses the polynomial hierarchy, the proof can’t be relativizing.  This theorem was subsequently generalized in a paper by Fenner, Fortnow, Kurtz, and Li, which used concepts like “generic oracles” that seem powerful but that I don’t understand.

The trouble is, Fortnow and Rogers’s construction was extremely tailored to making P=BQP.  It didn’t even make PromiseBPP=PromiseBQP (that is, it allowed that quantum computers might still be stronger than classical ones for promise problems), let alone did it collapse quantum with classical for sampling problems.

We can organize the various quantum/classical collapse possibilities as follows:

ExactSampBPP = ExactSampBQP

ApproxSampBPP = ApproxSampBQP   ⇔   FBPP = FBQP

PromiseBPP = PromiseBQP


Here FBPP is the class of relation problems solvable in randomized polynomial time—that is, problems where given an input x∈{0,1}n and a parameter ε>0, the goal is to produce any output in a certain set Sx, with success probability at least 1-ε, in time polynomial in n and 1/ε.  FBQP is the same thing except for quantum polynomial time.

The equivalence between the two equalities ApproxSampBPP = ApproxSampBQP and FBPP=FBQP is not obvious, and was the main result in my 2011 paper The Equivalence of Sampling and Searching.  While it’s easy to see that ApproxSampBPP = ApproxSampBQP implies FBPP=FBQP, the opposite direction requires us to take an arbitrary sampling problem S, and define a relation problem RS that has “essentially the same difficulty” as S (in the sense that RS has an efficient classical algorithm iff S does, RS has an efficient quantum algorithm iff S does, etc).  This, in turn, we do using Kolmogorov complexity: basically, RS asks us to output a tuple of samples that have large probabilities according to the requisite probability distribution from the sampling problem; and that also, conditioned on that, are close to algorithmically random.  The key observation is that, if a probabilistic Turing machine of fixed size can solve that relation problem for arbitrarily large inputs, then it must be doing so by sampling from a probability distribution close in variation distance to D—since any other approach would lead to outputs that were algorithmically compressible.

Be that as it may, staring at the chain of implications above, a natural question is which equalities in the chain collapse the polynomial hierarchy in a relativizing way, and which equalities collapse PH (if they do) only for deeper, non-relativizing reasons.

This is one of the questions that Lijie Chen and I took up, and settled, in our paper Complexity-Theoretic Foundations of Quantum Supremacy Experiments, which was presented at this summer’s Computational Complexity Conference (CCC) in Riga.  The “main” results in our paper—or at least, the results that the physicists care about—were about how confident we can be in the classical hardness of simulating quantum sampling experiments with random circuits, such as the experiments that the Google group will hopefully be able to do with its 49-qubit device in the near future.  This involved coming up with a new hardness assumption, which was tailored to those sorts of experiments, and giving a reduction from that new assumption, and studying how far existing algorithms come toward breaking the new assumption (tl;dr: not very far).

But our paper also had what I think of as a “back end,” containing results mainly of interest to complexity theorists, about what kinds of quantum supremacy theorems we can and can’t hope for in principle.  When I’m giving talks about our paper to physicists, I never have time to get to this back end—it’s always just “blah, blah, we also did some stuff involving structural complexity and oracles.”  But given that a large fraction of all the people on earth who enjoy those things are probably right here in this room, in the rest of this talk, I’d like to tell you about what was in the back end.

The first thing there was the following result.

Theorem 4 (A.-Chen).  There exists an oracle relative to which ApproxSampBPP = ApproxSampBQP and yet PH is infinite. In other words, any proof of the Strong Quantum Supremacy Conjecture will require non-relativizing techniques.

Theorem 4 represents a substantial generalization of Fortnow and Rogers’s Theorem 3, in that it makes quantum and classical equivalent not only for promise problems, but even for approximate sampling problems.  There’s also a sense in which Theorem 4 is the best possible: as we already saw, there are no oracles relative to which ExactSampBPP = ExactSampBQP and yet PH is infinite, because the opposite conclusion relativizes.

So how did we prove Theorem 4?  Well, we learned at this workshop that Stuart Kurtz pioneered the development of principled ways to prove oracle results just like this one, with multiple “nearly conflicting” requirements.  But, because we didn’t know that at the time, we basically just plunged in and built the oracle we wanted by hand!

In more detail, you can think of our oracle construction as proceeding in three steps.

  1. We throw in an oracle for a PSPACE-complete problem.  This collapses ApproxSampBPP with ApproxSampBQP, which is what we want.  Unfortunately, it also collapses the polynomial hierarchy down to P, which is not what we want!
  2. So then we need to add in a second part of the oracle that makes PH infinite again.  From Håstad’s seminal work in the 1980s until recently, even if we just wanted any oracle that makes PH infinite, without doing anything else at the same time, we only knew how to achieve that with quite special oracles.  But in their 2015 breakthrough, Rossman, Servedio, and Tan have shown that even a random oracle makes PH infinite with probability 1.  So for simplicity, we might as well take this second part of the oracle to be random.  The “only” problem is that, along with making PH infinite, a random oracle will also re-separate ApproxSampBPP and ApproxSampBQP (and for that matter, even ExactSampBPP and ExactSampBQP)—for example, because of the Fourier sampling task performed by the quantum circuit I showed you earlier!  So we once again seem back where we started.
    (To ward off confusion: ever since Fortnow and Rogers posed the problem in 1998, it remains frustratingly open whether BPP and BQP can be separated by a random oracle—that’s a problem that I and others have worked on, making partial progress that makes a query complexity separation look unlikely without definitively ruling one out.  But separating the sampling versions of BPP and BQP by a random oracle is much, much easier.)
  3. So, finally, we need to take the random oracle that makes PH infinite, and “scatter its bits around randomly” in such a way that a PH machine can still find the bits, but an ApproxSampBQP machine can’t.  In other words: given our initial random oracle A, we can make a new oracle B such that B(y,r)=(1,A(y)) if r is equal to a single randomly-chosen “password” ry, depending on the query y, and B(y,r)=(0,0) otherwise.  In that case, it takes just one more existential quantifier to guess the password ry, so PH can do it, but a quantum algorithm is stuck, basically because the linearity of quantum mechanics makes the algorithm not very sensitive to tiny random changes to the oracle string (i.e., the same reason why Grover’s algorithm can’t be arbitrarily sped up).  Incidentally, the reason why the password ry needs to depend on the query y is that otherwise the input x to the quantum algorithm could hardcode a password, and thereby reveal exponentially many bits of the random oracle A.

We should now check: why does the above oracle “only” collapse ApproxSampBPP and ApproxSampBQP?  Why doesn’t it also collapse ExactSampBPP and ExactSampBQP—as we know that it can’t, by our previous argument?  The answer is: because a quantum algorithm does have an exponentially small probability of correctly guessing a given password ry.  And that’s enough to make the distribution sampled by the quantum algorithm differ, by 1/exp(n) in variation distance, from the distribution sampled by any efficient classical simulation of the algorithm—an error that doesn’t matter for approximate sampling, but does matter for exact sampling.

Anyway, it’s then just like seven pages of formalizing the above intuitions and you’re done!

OK, since there seems to be time, I’d like to tell you about one more result from the back end of my and Lijie’s paper.

If we can work relative to whatever oracle A we like, then it’s easy to get quantum supremacy, and indeed BPPA≠BQPA.  We can, for example, use Simon’s problem, or Shor’s period-finding problem, or Forrelation, or other choices of black-box problems that admit huge, provable quantum speedups.  In the unrelativized world, by contrast, it’s clear that we have to make some complexity assumption for quantum supremacy—even if we just want ExactSampBPP ≠ ExactSampBQP.  For if (say) P=P#P, then ExactSampBPP and ExactSampBQP would collapse as well.

Lijie and I were wondering: what happens if we try to “interpolate” between the relativized and unrelativized worlds?  More specifically, what happens if our algorithms are allowed to query a black box, but we’re promised that whatever’s inside the black box is efficiently computable (i.e., has a small circuit)?  How hard is it to separate BPP from BQP, or ApproxSampBPP from ApproxSampBQP, relative to an oracle A that’s constrained to lie in P/poly?

Here, we’ll start with a beautiful observation that’s implicit in 2004 work by Servedio and Gortler, as well as 2012 work by Mark Zhandry.  In our formulation, this observation is as follows:

Theorem 5.  Suppose there exist cryptographic one-way functions (even just against classical adversaries).  Then there exists an oracle A∈P/poly such that BPPA≠BQPA.

While we still need to make a computational hardness assumption here, to separate quantum from classical computing, the surprise is that the assumption is so much weaker than what we’re used to.  We don’t need to assume the hardness of factoring or discrete log—or for that matter, of any “structured” problem that could be a basis for, e.g., public-key cryptography.  Just a one-way function that’s hard to invert, that’s all!

The intuition here is really simple.  Suppose there’s a one-way function; then it’s well-known, by the HILL and GGM Theorems of classical cryptography, that we can bootstrap it to get a cryptographic pseudorandom function family.  This is a family of polynomial-time computable functions fs:{0,1}n→{0,1}n, parameterized by a secret seed s, such that fs can’t be distinguished from a truly random function f by any polynomial-time algorithm that’s given oracle access to the function and that doesn’t know s.  Then, as our efficiently computable oracle A that separates quantum from classical computing, we take an ensemble of functions like

gs,r(x) = fs(x mod r),

where r is an exponentially large integer that serves as a “hidden period,” and s and r are both secrets stored by the oracle that are inaccessible to the algorithm that queries it.

The reasoning is now as follows: certainly there’s an efficient quantum algorithm to find r, or to solve some decision problem involving r, which we can use to define a language that’s in BQPA but not in BPPA.  That algorithm is just Shor’s period-finding algorithm!  (Technically, Shor’s algorithm needs certain assumptions on the starting function fs to work—e.g., it couldn’t be a constant function—but if those assumptions aren’t satisfied, then fs wasn’t pseudorandom anyway.)  On the other hand, suppose there were an efficient classical algorithm to find the period r.  In that case, we have a dilemma on our hands: would the classical algorithm still have worked, had we replaced fs by a truly random function?  If so, then the classical algorithm would violate well-known lower bounds on the classical query complexity of period-finding.  But if not, then by working on pseudorandom functions but not on truly random functions, the algorithm would be distinguishing the two—so fs wouldn’t have been a cryptographic pseudorandom function at all, contrary to assumption!

This all caused Lijie and me to wonder whether Theorem 5 could be strengthened even further, so that it wouldn’t use any complexity assumption at all.  In other words, why couldn’t we just prove unconditionally that there’s an oracle A∈P/poly such that BPPA≠BQPA?  By comparison, it’s not hard to see that we can unconditionally construct an oracle A∈P/poly such that PA≠NPA.

Alas, with the following theorem, we were able to explain why BPP vs. BQP (and even ApproxSampBPP vs. ApproxSampBQP) are different, and why some computational assumption is still needed to separate quantum from classical, even if we’re working relative to an efficiently computable oracle.

Theorem 6 (A.-Chen).  Suppose that, in the real world, ApproxSampBPP = ApproxSampBQP and NP⊆BPP (granted, these are big assumptions!).  Then ApproxSampBPPA = ApproxSampBQPA for all oracles A∈P/poly.

Taking the contrapositive, this is saying that you can’t separate ApproxSampBPP from ApproxSampBQP relative to an efficiently computable oracle, without separating some complexity classes in the real world.  This contrasts not only with P vs. NP, but even with ExactSampBPP vs. ExactSampBQP, which can be separated unconditionally relative to efficiently computable oracles.

The proof of Theorem 6 is intuitive and appealing.  Not surprisingly, we’re going to heavily exploit the assumptions ApproxSampBPP = ApproxSampBQP and NP⊆BPP.  Let Q be a polynomial-time quantum algorithm that queries an oracle A∈P/poly.  Then we need to simulate Q—and in particular, sample close to the same probability distribution over outputs—using a polynomial-time classical algorithm that queries A.


$$ \sum_{x,w} \alpha_{x,w} \left|x,w\right\rangle $$

be the state of Q immediately before its first query to the oracle A, where x is the input to be submitted to the oracle.  Then our first task is to get a bunch of samples from the probability distribution D={|αx,w|2}x,w, or something close to D in variation distance.  But this is easy to do, using the assumption ApproxSampBPP = ApproxSampBQP.

Let x1,…,xk be our samples from D, marginalized to the x part.  Then next, our classical algorithm queries A on each of x1,…,xk, getting responses A(x1),…,A(xk).  The next step is to search for a function f∈P/poly—or more specifically, a function of whatever fixed polynomial size is relevant—that agrees with A on the sample data, i.e. such that f(xi)=A(xi) for all i∈[k].  This is where we’ll use the assumption NP⊆BPP (together, of course, with the fact that at least one such f exists, namely A itself!), to make the task of finding f efficient.  We’ll also appeal to a fundamental fact about the sample complexity of PAC-learning.  The fact is that, if we find a polynomial-size circuit f that agrees with A on a bunch of sample points drawn independently from a distribution, then f will probably agree with A on most further points drawn from the same distribution as well.

So, OK, we then have a pretty good “mock oracle,” f, that we can substitute for the real oracle on the first query that Q makes.  Of course f and A won’t perfectly agree, but the small fraction of disagreements won’t matter much, again because of the linearity of quantum mechanics (i.e., the same thing that prevents us from speeding up Grover’s algorithm arbitrarily).  So we can basically simulate Q’s first query, and now our classical simulation is good to go until Q’s second query!  But now you can see where this is going: we iterate the same approach, and reuse the same assumptions ApproxSampBPP = ApproxSampBQP and NP⊆BPP, to find a new “mock oracle” that lets us simulate Q’s second query, and so on until all of Q’s queries have been simulated.

OK, I’ll stop there.  I don’t have a clever conclusion or anything.  Thank you.

Is “information is physical” contentful?

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

“Information is physical.”

This slogan seems to have originated around 1991 with Rolf Landauer.  It’s ricocheted around quantum information for the entire time I’ve been in the field, incanted in funding agency reports and popular articles and at the beginnings and ends of talks.

But what the hell does it mean?

There are many things it’s taken to mean, in my experience, that don’t make a lot of sense when you think about them—or else they’re vacuously true, or purely a matter of perspective, or not faithful readings of the slogan’s words.

For example, some people seem to use the slogan to mean something more like its converse: “physics is informational.”  That is, the laws of physics are ultimately not about mass or energy or pressure, but about bits and computations on them.  As I’ve often said, my problem with that view is less its audacity than its timidity!  It’s like, what would the universe have to do in order not to be informational in this sense?  “Information” is just a name we give to whatever picks out one element from a set of possibilities, with the “amount” of information given by the log of the set’s cardinality (and with suitable generalizations to infinite sets, nonuniform probability distributions, yadda yadda).  So, as long as the laws of physics take the form of telling us that some observations or configurations of the world are possible and others are not, or of giving us probabilities for each configuration, no duh they’re about information!

Other people use “information is physical” to pour scorn on the idea that “information” could mean anything without some actual physical instantiation of the abstract 0’s and 1’s, such as voltage differences in a loop of wire.  Here I certainly agree with the tautology that in order to exist physically—that is, be embodied in the physical world—a piece of information (like a song, video, or computer program) does need to be embodied in the physical world.  But my inner Platonist slumps in his armchair when people go on to assert that, for example, it’s meaningless to discuss the first prime number larger than 1010^125, because according to post-1998 cosmology, one couldn’t fit its digits inside the observable universe.

If the cosmologists revise their models next week, will this prime suddenly burst into existence, with all the mathematical properties that one could’ve predicted for it on general grounds—only to fade back into the netherworld if the cosmologists revise their models again?  Why would anyone want to use language in such a tortured way?

Yes, brains, computers, yellow books, and so on that encode mathematical knowledge comprise only a tiny sliver of the physical world.  But it’s equally true that the physical world we observe comprises only a tiny sliver of mathematical possibility-space.

Still other people use “information is physical” simply to express their enthusiasm for the modern merger of physical and information sciences, as exemplified by quantum computing.  Far be it from me to temper that enthusiasm: rock on, dudes!

Yet others use “information is physical” to mean that the rules governing information processing and transmission in the physical world aren’t knowable a priori, but can only be learned from physics.  This is clearest in the case of quantum information, which has its own internal logic that generalizes the logic of classical information.  But in some sense, we didn’t need quantum mechanics to tell us this!  Of course the laws of physics have ultimate jurisdiction over whatever occurs in the physical world, information processing included.

My biggest beef, with all these unpackings of the “information is physical” slogan, is that none of them really engage with any of the deep truths that we’ve learned about physics.  That is, we could’ve had more-or-less the same debates about any of them, even in a hypothetical world where the laws of physics were completely different.

So then what should we mean by “information is physical”?  In the rest of this post, I’d like to propose an answer to that question.

We get closer to the meat of the slogan if we consider some actual physical phenomena, say in quantum mechanics.  The double-slit experiment will do fine.

Recall: you shoot photons, one by one, at a screen with two slits, then examine the probability distribution over where the photons end up on a second screen.  You ask: does that distribution contain alternating “light” and “dark” regions, the signature of interference between positive and negative amplitudes?  And the answer, predicted by the math and confirmed by experiment, is: yes, but only if the information about which slit the photon went through failed to get recorded anywhere else in the universe, other than the photon location itself.

Here a skeptic interjects: but that has to be wrong!  The criterion for where a physical particle lands on a physical screen can’t possibly depend on anything as airy as whether “information” got “recorded” or not.  For what counts as “information,” anyway?  As an extreme example: what if God, unbeknownst to us mortals, took divine note of which slit the photon went through?  Would that destroy the interference pattern?  If so, then every time we do the experiment, are we collecting data about the existence or nonexistence of an all-knowing God?

It seems to me that the answer is: insofar as the mind of God can be modeled as a tensor factor in Hilbert space, yes, we are.  And crucially, if quantum mechanics is universally true, then the mind of God would have to be such a tensor factor, in order for its state to play any role in the prediction of observed phenomena.

To say this another way: it’s obvious and unexceptionable that, by observing a physical system, you can often learn something about what information must be in it.  For example, you need never have heard of DNA to deduce that chickens must somehow contain information about making more chickens.  What’s much more surprising is that, in quantum mechanics, you can often deduce things about what information can’t be present, anywhere in the physical world—because if such information existed, even a billion light-years away, it would necessarily have a physical effect that you don’t see.

Another famous example here concerns identical particles.  You may have heard the slogan that “if you’ve seen one electron, you’ve seen them all”: that is, apart from position, momentum, and spin, every two electrons have exactly the same mass, same charge, same every other property, including even any properties yet to be discovered.  Again the skeptic interjects: but that has to be wrong.  Logically, you could only ever confirm that two electrons were different, by observing a difference in their behavior.  Even if the electrons had behaved identically for a billion years, you couldn’t rule out the possibility that they were actually different, for example because of tiny nametags (“Hi, I’m Emily the Electron!” “Hi, I’m Ernie!”) that had no effect on any experiment you’d thought to perform, but were visible to God.

You can probably guess where this is going.  Quantum mechanics says that, no, you can verify that two particles are perfectly identical by doing an experiment where you swap them and see what happens.  If the particles are identical in all respects, then you’ll see quantum interference between the swapped and un-swapped states.  If they aren’t, you won’t.  The kind of interference you’ll see is different for fermions (like electrons) than for bosons (like photons), but the basic principle is the same in both cases.  Once again, quantum mechanics lets you verify that a specific type of information—in this case, information that distinguishes one particle from another—was not present anywhere in the physical world, because if it were, it would’ve destroyed an interference effect that you in fact saw.

This, I think, already provides a meatier sense in which “information is physical” than any of the senses discussed previously.

But we haven’t gotten to the filet mignon yet.  The late, great Jacob Bekenstein will forever be associated with the discovery that information, wherever and whenever it occurs in the physical world, takes up a minimum amount of space.  The most precise form of this statement, called the covariant entropy bound, was worked out in detail by Raphael Bousso.  Here I’ll be discussing a looser version of the bound, which holds in “non-pathological” cases, and which states that a bounded physical system can store at most A/(4 ln 2) bits of information, where A is the area in Planck units of any surface that encloses the system—so, about 1069 bits per square meter.  (Actually it’s 1069 qubits per square meter, but because of Holevo’s theorem, an upper bound on the number of qubits is also an upper bound on the number of classical bits that can be reliably stored in a system and then retrieved later.)

You might have heard of the famous way Nature enforces this bound.  Namely, if you tried to create a hard drive that stored more than 1069 bits per square meter of surface area, the hard drive would necessarily collapse to a black hole.  And from that point on, the information storage capacity would scale “only” with the area of the black hole’s event horizon—a black hole itself being the densest possible hard drive allowed by physics.

Let’s hear once more from our skeptic.  “Nonsense!  Matter can take up space.  Energy can take up space.  But information?  Bah!  That’s just a category mistake.  For a proof, suppose God took one of your black holes, with a 1-square-meter event horizon, which already had its supposed maximum of ~1069 bits of information.  And suppose She then created a bunch of new fundamental fields, which didn’t interact with gravity, electromagnetism, or any of the other fields that we know from observation, but which had the effect of encoding 10300 new bits in the region of the black hole.  Presto!  An unlimited amount of additional information, exactly where Bekenstein said it couldn’t exist.”

We’d like to pinpoint what’s wrong with the skeptic’s argument—and do so in a self-contained, non-question-begging way, a way that doesn’t pull any rabbits out of hats, other than the general principles of relativity and quantum mechanics.  I was confused myself about how to do this, until a month ago, when Daniel Harlow helped set me straight (any remaining howlers in my exposition are 100% mine, not his).

I believe the logic goes like this:

  1. Relativity—even just Galilean relativity—demands that, in flat space, the laws of physics must have the same form for all inertial observers (i.e., all observers who move through space at constant speed).
  2. Anything in the physical world that varies in space—say, a field that encodes different bits of information at different locations—also varies in time, from the perspective of an observer who moves through the field at a constant speed.
  3. Combining 1 and 2, we conclude that anything that can vary in space can also vary in time.  Or to say it better, there’s only one kind of varying: varying in spacetime.
  4. More strongly, special relativity tells us that there’s a specific numerical conversion factor between units of space and units of time: namely the speed of light, c.  Loosely speaking, this means that if we know the rate at which a field varies across space, we can also calculate the rate at which it varies across time, and vice versa.
  5. Anything that varies across time carries energy.  Why?  Because this is essentially the definition of energy in quantum mechanics!  Up to a constant multiple (namely, Planck’s constant), energy is the expected speed of rotation of the global phase of the wavefunction, when you apply your Hamiltonian.  If the global phase rotates at the slowest possible speed, then we take the energy to be zero, and say you’re in a vacuum state.  If it rotates at the next highest speed, we say you’re in a first excited state, and so on.  Indeed, assuming a time-independent Hamiltonian, the evolution of any quantum system can be fully described by simply decomposing the wavefunction into a superposition of energy eigenstates, then tracking of the phase of each eigenstate’s amplitude as it loops around and around the unit circle.  No energy means no looping around means nothing ever changes.
  6. Combining 3 and 5, any field that varies across space carries energy.
  7. More strongly, combining 4 and 5, if we know how quickly a field varies across space, we can lower-bound how much energy it has to contain.
  8. In general relativity, anything that carries energy couples to the gravitational field.  This means that anything that carries energy necessarily has an observable effect: if nothing else, its effect on the warping of spacetime.  (This is dramatically illustrated by dark matter, which is currently observable via its spacetime warping effect and nothing else.)
  9. Combining 6 and 8, any field that varies across space couples to the gravitational field.
  10. More strongly, combining 7 and 8, if we know how quickly a field varies across space, then we can lower-bound by how much it has to warp spacetime.  This is so because of another famous (and distinctive) feature of gravity: namely, the fact that it’s universally attractive, so all the warping contributions add up.
  11. But in GR, spacetime can only be warped by so much before we create a black hole: this is the famous Schwarzschild bound.
  12. Combining 10 and 11, the information contained in a physical field can only vary so quickly across space, before it causes spacetime to collapse to a black hole.

Summarizing where we’ve gotten, we could say: any information that’s spatially localized at all, can only be localized so precisely.  In our world, the more densely you try to pack 1’s and 0’s, the more energy you need, therefore the more you warp spacetime, until all you’ve gotten for your trouble is a black hole.  Furthermore, if we rewrote the above conceptual argument in math—keeping track of all the G’s, c’s, h’s, and so on—we could derive a quantitative bound on how much information there can be in a bounded region of space.  And if we were careful enough, that bound would be precisely the holographic entropy bound, which says that the number of (qu)bits is at most A/(4 ln 2), where A is the area of a bounding surface in Planck units.

Let’s pause to point out some interesting features of this argument.

Firstly, we pretty much needed the whole kitchen sink of basic physical principles: special relativity (both the equivalence of inertial frames and the finiteness of the speed of light), quantum mechanics (in the form of the universal relation between energy and frequency), and finally general relativity and gravity.  All three of the fundamental constants G, c, and h made appearances, which is why all three show up in the detailed statement of the holographic bound.

But secondly, gravity only appeared from step 8 onwards.  Up till then, everything could be said solely in the language of quantum field theory: that is, quantum mechanics plus special relativity.  The result would be the so-called Bekenstein bound, which upper-bounds the number of bits in any spatial region by the product of the region’s radius and its energy content.  I learned that there’s an interesting history here: Bekenstein originally deduced this bound using ingenious thought experiments involving black holes.  Only later did people realize that the Bekenstein bound can be derived purely within QFT (see here and here for example)—in contrast to the holographic bound, which really is a statement about quantum gravity.  (An early hint of this was that, while the holographic bound involves Newton’s gravitational constant G, the Bekenstein bound doesn’t.)

Thirdly, speaking of QFT, some readers might be struck by the fact that at no point in our 12-step program did we ever seem to need QFT machinery.  Which is fortunate, because if we had needed it, I wouldn’t have been able to explain any of this!  But here I have to confess that I cheated slightly.  Recall step 4, which said that “if you know the rate at which a field varies across space, you can calculate the rate at which it varies across time.”  It turns out that, in order to give that sentence a definite meaning, one uses the fact that in QFT, space and time derivatives in the Hamiltonian need to be related by a factor of c, since otherwise the Hamiltonian wouldn’t be Lorentz-invariant.

Fourthly, eagle-eyed readers might notice a loophole in the argument.  Namely, we never upper-bounded how much information God could add to the world, via fields that are constant across all of spacetime.  For example, there’s nothing to stop Her from creating a new scalar field that takes the same value everywhere in the universe—with that value, in suitable units, encoding 1050000 separate divine thoughts in its binary expansion.  But OK, being constant, such a field would interact with nothing and affect no observations—so Occam’s Razor itches to slice it off, by rewriting the laws of physics in a simpler form where that field is absent.  If you like, such a field would at most be a comment in the source code of the universe: it could be as long as the Great Programmer wanted it to be, but would have no observable effect on those of us living inside the program’s execution.

Of course, even before relativity and quantum mechanics, information had already been playing a surprisingly fleshy role in physics, through its appearance as entropy in 19th-century thermodynamics.  Which leads to another puzzle.  To a computer scientist, the concept of entropy, as the log of the number of microstates compatible with a given macrostate, seems clear enough, as does the intuition for why it should increase monotonically with time.  Or at least, to whatever extent we’re confused about these matters, we’re no more confused than the physicists are!

But then why should this information-theoretic concept be so closely connected to tangible quantities like temperature, and pressure, and energy?  From the mere assumption that a black hole has a nonzero entropy—that is, that it takes many bits to describe—how could Bekenstein and Hawking have possibly deduced that it also has a nonzero temperature?  Or: if you put your finger into a tub of hot water, does the heat that you feel somehow reflect how many bits are needed to describe the water’s microstate?

Once again our skeptic pipes up: “but surely God could stuff as many additional bits as She wanted into the microstate of the hot water—for example, in degrees of freedom that are still unknown to physics—without the new bits having any effect on the water’s temperature.”

But we should’ve learned by now to doubt this sort of argument.  There’s no general principle, in our universe, saying that you can hide as many bits as you want in a physical object, without those bits influencing the object’s observable properties.  On the contrary, in case after case, our laws of physics seem to be intolerant of “wallflower bits,” which hide in a corner without talking to anyone.  If a bit is there, the laws of physics want it to affect other nearby bits and be affected by them in turn.

In the case of thermodynamics, the assumption that does all the real work here is that of equidistribution.  That is, whatever degrees of freedom might be available to your thermal system, your gas in a box or whatever, we assume that they’re all already “as randomized as they could possibly be,” subject to a few observed properties like temperature and volume and pressure.  (At least, we assume that in classical thermodynamics.  Non-equilibrium thermodynamics is a whole different can of worms, worms that don’t stay in equilibrium.)  Crucially, we assume this despite the fact that we might not even know all the relevant degrees of freedom.

Why is this assumption justified?  “Because experiment bears it out,” the physics teacher explains—but we can do better.  The assumption is justified because, as long as the degrees of freedom that we’re talking about all interact with each other, they’ve already had plenty of time to equilibrate.  And conversely, if a degree of freedom doesn’t interact with the stuff we’re observing—or with anything that interacts with the stuff we’re observing, etc.—well then, who cares about it anyway?

But now, because the microscopic laws of physics have the fundamental property of reversibility—that is, they never destroy information—a new bit has to go somewhere, and it can’t overwrite degrees of freedom that are already fully randomized.  This is why, if you pump more bits of information into a tub of hot water, while keeping it at the same volume, the new bits have nowhere to go except into pushing up the energy.  Now, there are often ways to push up the energy other than by raising the temperature—the concept of specific heat, in chemistry, is precisely about this—but if you need to stuff more bits into a substance, at the cost of raising its energy, certainly one of the obvious ways to do it is to describe a greater range of possible speeds for the water molecules.  So since that can happen, by equidistribution it typically does happen, which means that the molecules move faster on average, and your finger feels the water get hotter.

In summary, our laws of physics are structured in such a way that even pure information often has “nowhere to hide”: if the bits are there at all in the abstract machinery of the world, then they’re forced to pipe up and have a measurable effect.  And this is not a tautology, but comes about only because of nontrivial facts about special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, and thermodynamics.  And this is what I think people should mean when they say “information is physical.”

Anyway, if this was all obvious to you, I apologize for having wasted your time!  But in my defense, it was never explained to me quite this way, nor was it sorted out in my head until recently—even though it seems like one of the most basic and general things one can possibly say about physics.

Endnotes. Thanks again to Daniel Harlow, not only for explaining the logic of the holographic bound to me but for several suggestions that improved this post.

Some readers might suspect circularity in the arguments we’ve made: are we merely saying that “any information that has observable physical consequences, has observable physical consequences”?  No, it’s more than that.  In all the examples I discussed, the magic was that we inserted certain information into our abstract mathematical description of the world, taking no care to ensure that the information’s presence would have any observable consequences whatsoever.  But then the principles of quantum mechanics, quantum gravity, or thermodynamics forced the information to be detectable in very specific ways (namely, via the destruction of quantum interference, the warping of spacetime, or the generation of heat respectively).

Three things

Monday, July 17th, 2017

I was shocked and horrified to learn of the loss of Maryam Mirzakhani at age 40, after a battle with cancer (see here or here).  Mirzakhani was a renowned mathematician at Stanford and the world’s first and so far only female Fields Medalist.  I never had the privilege of meeting her, but everything I’ve read about her fills me with admiration.  I wish to offer condolences to her friends and family, including her husband Jan Vondrák, also a professor at Stanford and a member of the CS theory community.

In other depressing news, discussion continues to rage on social media about “The Uninhabitable Earth,” the New York magazine article by David Wallace-Wells arguing that the dangers of climate change have been systematically understated even by climate scientists; that sea level rise is the least of the problems; and that if we stay the current course, much of the earth’s landmass has a good chance of being uninhabitable by the year 2100.  In an unusual turn of events, the Wallace-Wells piece has been getting slammed by climate scientists, including Michael Mann (see here and also this interview)—people who are usually in the news to refute the claims of deniers.

Some of the critics’ arguments seem cogent to me: for example, that Wallace-Wells misunderstood some satellite data, and more broadly, that the piece misleadingly presents its scenario as overwhelmingly probable by 2100 if we do nothing, rather than as “only” 10% likely or whatever—i.e., a mere Trump-becoming-president level of risk.  Other objections to the article impressed me less: for example, that doom-and-gloom is a bad way to motivate people about climate change; that the masses need a more optimistic takeaway.  That obviously has no bearing on the truth of what’s going to happen—but even if we did agree to entertain such arguments, well, it’s not as if mainstream messaging on climate change has been an unmitigated success.  What if everyone should be sweating-in-the-night terrified?

As far as I understand it, the question of the plausibility of Wallace-Wells’s catastrophe scenario mostly just comes down to a single scientific unknown: namely, will the melting permafrost belch huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere?  If it does, then “Armageddon” is probably a fair description of what awaits us in the next century, and if not, not.  Alas, our understanding of permafrost doesn’t seem especially reliable, and it strikes me that models of such feedbacks have a long history of erring on the side of conservatism (for example, researchers were astonished by how quickly glaciers and ice shelves fell apart).

So, while I wish the article was written with more caveats, I submit that runaway warming scenarios deserve more attention rather than less.  And we should be putting discussion of those scenarios in exactly the broader context that Wallace-Wells does: namely, that of the Permian-Triassic extinction event, the Fermi paradox, and the conditions for a technological civilization to survive past its infancy.

Certainly we spend much more time on risks to civilization (e.g., nuclear terrorism, bioengineered pandemics) that strike me as less probable than this one.  And certainly this tail, in the distribution of possible outcomes, deserves at least as much attention as its more popular opposite, the tail where climate change turns out not to be much of a problem at all.  For the grim truth about climate change is that history won’t end in 2100: only the projections do.  And the mere addition of 50 more years could easily suffice to turn a tail risk into a body risk.

Of course, that the worst will happen is a clear prediction of reverse Hollywoodism theory—besides being the “natural, default” prediction for a computer scientist used to worst-case analysis.  This is one prediction that I hope turns out to be as wrong as possible.

OK, now for something to cheer us all up.  Yesterday the group of Misha Lukin, at Harvard, put a paper on the arXiv reporting the creation of a 51-qubit quantum simulator using cold atoms.  The paper doesn’t directly address the question of quantum supremacy, or indeed of performance comparisons between the new device and classical simulations at all.  But this is clearly a big step forward, while the world waits for the fully-programmable 50-qubit superconducting QCs that have been promised by the groups at Google and IBM.

Indeed, this strikes me as the most exciting news in experimental quantum information since last month, when Jian-Wei Pan’s group in Shanghai reported the first transmission of entangled photons from a satellite to earth—thereby allowing violations of the Bell inequality over 1200 kilometers, teleportation of a qubit from earth to space, and other major firsts.  These are breakthroughs that we knew were in the works ever since the Chinese government launched the QUESS satellite devoted to quantum communications.  I should’ve blogged about them in June.  Then again, regular readers of Shtetl-Optimized, familiar as they already are with the universal reach of quantum mechanics and with the general state of quantum information technology, shouldn’t find anything here that fundamentally surprises them, should they?

Amsterdam art museums plagiarizing my blog?

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

This past week I had the pleasure of attending COLT (Conference on Learning Theory) 2017 in Amsterdam, and of giving an invited talk on “PAC-Learning and Reconstruction of Quantum States.”  You can see the PowerPoint slides here; videos were also made, but don’t seem to be available yet.

This was my first COLT, but almost certainly not the last.  I learned lots of cool new tidbits, from the expressive power of small-depth neural networks, to a modern theoretical computer science definition of “non-discriminatory” (namely, your learning algorithm’s output should be independent of protected categories like race, sex, etc. after conditioning on the truth you’re trying to predict), to the inapproximability of VC dimension (assuming the Exponential Time Hypothesis).  You can see the full schedule here.  Thanks so much to the PC chairs, Ohad Shamir and Satyen Kale, for inviting me and for putting on a great conference.

And one more thing: I’m not normally big on art museums, but Amsterdam turns out to have two in close proximity to each other—the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk—each containing something that Shtetl-Optimized readers might recognize.


Photo credits: Ronald de Wolf and Marijn Heule.

Yet more errors in papers

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

Following up on my posts PostBQP Postscripts and More Wrong Things I Said In Papers, it felt like time for another post in which I publicly flog myself for mistakes in my research papers.  [Warning: The rest of this post is kinda, sorta technical.  Read at your own risk.]

(1) In my 2006 paper “Oracles are subtle but not malicious,” I claimed to show that if PP is contained in BQP/qpoly, then the counting hierarchy collapses to QMA (Theorem 5).  But on further reflection, I only know how to show a collapse of the counting hierarchy under the stronger assumption that PP is in BQP/poly.  If PP is in BQP/qpoly, then certainly P#P=PP=QMA, but I don’t know how to collapse any further levels of the counting hierarchy.  The issue is this: in QMA, we can indeed nondeterministically guess an (amplified) quantum advice state for a BQP/qpoly algorithm.  We can then verify that the advice state works to solve PP problems, by using (for example) the interactive protocol for the permanent, or some other #P-complete problem.  But having done that, how do we then unravel the higher levels of the counting hierarchy?  For example, how do we simulate PPPP in PPBQP=PP?  We don’t have any mechanism to pass the quantum advice up to the oracle PP machine, since queries to a PP oracle are by definition classical strings.  We could try to use tools from my later paper with Andy Drucker, passing a classical description of the quantum advice up to the oracle and then using the description to reconstruct the advice for ourselves.  But doing so just doesn’t seem to give us a complexity class that’s low for PP, which is what would be needed to unravel the counting hierarchy.  I still think this result might be recoverable, but a new idea is needed.

(2) In my 2008 algebrization paper with Avi Wigderson, one of the most surprising things we showed was a general connection between communication complexity lower bounds and algebraic query complexity lower bounds.  Specifically, given a Boolean oracle A:{0,1}n→{0,1}, let ~A be a low-degree extension of A over a finite field F (that is, ~A(x)=A(x) whenever x∈{0,1}n).  Then suppose we have an algorithm that’s able to learn some property of A, by making k black-box queries to ~A.  We observed that, in such a case, if Alice is given the top half of the truth table of A, and Bob is given the bottom half of the truth table, then there’s necessarily a communication protocol by which Alice and Bob can learn the same property of A, by exchanging at most O(kn log|F|) bits.  This connection is extremely model-independent: a randomized query algorithm gives rise to a randomized communication protocol, a quantum query algorithm gives rise to a quantum communication protocol, etc. etc.  The upshot is that, if you want to lower-bound the number of queries that an algorithm needs to make to the algebraic extension oracle ~A, in order to learn something about A, then it suffices to prove a suitable communication complexity lower bound.  And the latter, unlike algebraic query complexity, is a well-studied subject with countless results that one can take off the shelf.  We illustrated how one could use this connection to prove, for example, that there exists an oracle A such that NPA ⊄ BQP~A, for any low-degree extension ~A of A—a separation that we didn’t and don’t know how to prove any other way. Likewise, there exists an oracle B such that BQPB ⊄ BPP~B for any low-degree extension ~B of B.

The trouble is, our “proof sketches” for these separations (in Theorem 5.11) are inadequate, even for “sketches.”  They can often be fixed, but only by appealing to special properties of the communication complexity separations in question, properties that don’t necessarily hold for an arbitrary communication separation between two arbitrary models.

The issue is this: while it’s true, as we claimed, that a communication complexity lower bound implies an algebraic query complexity lower bound, it’s not true in general that a communication complexity upper bound implies an algebraic query complexity upper bound!  So, from a communication separation between models C and D, we certainly obtain a query complexity problem that’s not in D~A, but then the problem might not be in CA.  What tripped us up was that, in the cases we had in mind (e.g. Disjointness), it’s obvious that the query problem is in CA.  In other cases, however, such as Raz’s separation between quantum and randomized communication complexity, it probably isn’t even true.  In the latter case, to recover the desired conclusion about algebraic query complexity (namely, the existence of an oracle B such that BQPB ⊄ BPP~B), what seems to be needed is to start from a later quantum vs. classical communication complexity separation due to Klartag and Regev, and then convert their communication problem into a query problem using a recent approach by myself and Shalev Ben-David (see Section 4).  Unfortunately, my and Shalev’s approach only tells us nonconstructively that there exists a query problem with the desired separation, with no upper bound on the gate complexity of the quantum algorithm.  So strictly speaking, I still don’t know how to get a separation between the relativized complexity classes BQPB and BPP~B defined in terms of Turing machines.

In any case, I of course should have realized this issue with the algebrization paper the moment Shalev and I encountered the same issue when writing our later paper.  Let me acknowledge Shalev, as well as Robin Kothari, for helping to spur my realization of the issue.

In case it wasn’t clear, the mistakes I’ve detailed here have no effect on the main results of the papers in question (e.g., the existence of an oracle relative to which PP has linear-sized circuits; the existence and pervasiveness of the algebrization barrier).  The effect is entirely on various “bonus” results—results that, because they’re bonus, were gone over much less carefully by authors and reviewers alike.

Nevertheless, I’ve always felt like in science, the louder you are about your own mistakes, the better.  Hence this post.

This Week’s BS

Friday, May 5th, 2017

There are two pieces of BosonSampling-related news that people have asked me about this week.

First, a group in Shanghai, led by Chaoyang Lu and Jianwei Pan, has reported in Nature Photonics that they can do BosonSampling with a coincidence rate that’s higher than in previous experiments by a factor of several thousand.  This, in particular, lets them do BosonSampling with 5 photons.  Now, 5 might not sound like that much, especially since the group in Bristol previously did 6-photon BosonSampling.  But to make their experiment work, the Bristol group needed to start its photons in the initial state |3,3〉: that is, two modes with 3 photons each.  This gives rise to matrices with repeated rows, whose permanents are much easier to calculate than the permanents of arbitrary matrices.  By contrast, the Shangai group starts its photons in the “true BosonSampling initial state” |1,1,1,1,1〉: that is, five modes with 1 photon each.  That’s the kind of initial state we ultimately want.

The second piece of news is that on Monday, a group at Bristol—overlapping with the group we mentioned before—submitted a preprint to the arXiv with the provocative title “No imminent quantum supremacy by boson sampling.”  In this paper, they give numerical evidence that BosonSampling, with n photons and m modes, can be approximately simulated by a classical computer in “merely” about n2n time (that is, the time needed to calculate a single n×n permanent), as opposed to the roughly mn time that one would need if one had to calculate permanents corresponding to all the possible outcomes of the experiment.  As a consequence of that, they argue that achieving quantum supremacy via BosonSampling would probably require at least ~50 photons—which would in turn require a “step change” in technology, as they put it.

I completely agree with the Bristol group’s view of the asymptotics.  In fact, Alex Arkhipov and I ourselves repeatedly told experimentalists, in our papers and talks about BosonSampling (the question came up often…), that the classical complexity of the problem should only be taken to scale like 2n, rather than like mn.  Despite not having a general proof that the problem could actually be solved in ~2n time in the worst case, we said that for two main reasons:

  1. Even under the most optimistic assumptions, our hardness reductions, from Gaussian permanent estimation and so forth, only yielded ~2n hardness, not ~mn hardness.  (Hardness reductions giving us important clues about the real world?  Whuda thunk??)
  2. If our BosonSampling matrix is Haar-random—or otherwise not too skewed to produce outcomes with huge probabilities—then it’s not hard to see that we can do approximate BosonSampling in O(n2n) time classically, by using rejection sampling.

Indeed, Alex and I insisted on these points despite some pushback from experimentalists, who were understandably hoping that they could get to quantum supremacy just by upping m, the number of modes, without needing to do anything heroic with n, the number of photons!  So I’m happy to see that a more careful analysis supports the guess that Alex and I made.

On the other hand, what does this mean for the number of photons needed for “quantum supremacy”: is it 20? 30? 50?  I confess that that sort of question interests me much less, since it all depends on the details of how you define the comparison (are we comparing against ENIAC? a laptop? a server farm? how many cores? etc etc).  As I’ve often said, my real hope with quantum supremacy is to see a quantum advantage that’s so overwhelming—so duh-obvious to the naked eye—that we don’t have to squint or argue about the definitions.

Insert D-Wave Post Here

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

In the two months since I last blogged, the US has continued its descent into madness.  Yet even while so many certainties have proven ephemeral as the morning dew—the US’s autonomy from Russia, the sanity of our nuclear chain of command, the outcome of our Civil War, the constraints on rulers that supposedly set us apart from the world’s dictator-run hellholes—I’ve learned that certain facts of life remain constant.

The moon still waxes and wanes.  Electrons remain bound to their nuclei.  P≠NP proofs still fill my inbox.  Squirrels still gather acorns.  And—of course!—people continue to claim big quantum speedups using D-Wave devices, and those claims still require careful scrutiny.

With that preamble, I hereby offer you eight quantum computing news items.

Cathy McGeoch Episode II: The Selby Comparison

On January 17, a group from D-Wave—including Cathy McGeoch, who now works directly for D-Wave—put out a preprint claiming a factor-of-2500 speedup for the D-Wave machine (the new, 2000-qubit one) compared to the best classical algorithms.  Notably, they wrote that the speedup persisted when they compared against simulated annealing, quantum Monte Carlo, and even the so-called Hamze-de Freitas-Selby (HFS) algorithm, which was often the classical victor in previous performance comparisons against the D-Wave machine.

Reading this, I was happy to see how far the discussion has advanced since 2013, when McGeoch and Cong Wang reported a factor-of-3600 speedup for the D-Wave machine, but then it turned out that they’d compared only against classical exact solvers rather than heuristics—a choice for which they were heavily criticized on this blog and elsewhere.  (And indeed, that particular speedup disappeared once the classical computer’s shackles were removed.)

So, when people asked me this January about the new speedup claim—the one even against the HFS algorithm—I replied that, even though we’ve by now been around this carousel several times, I felt like the ball was now firmly in the D-Wave skeptics’ court, to reproduce the observed performance classically.  And if, after a year or so, no one could, that would be a good time to start taking seriously that a D-Wave speedup might finally be here to stay—and to move on to the next question, of whether this speedup had anything to do with quantum computation, or only with the building of a piece of special-purpose optimization hardware.

A&M: Annealing and Matching

As it happened, it only took one month.  On March 2, Salvatore Mandrà, Helmut Katzgraber, and Creighton Thomas put up a response preprint, pointing out that the instances studied by the D-Wave group in their most recent comparison are actually reducible to the minimum-weight perfect matching problem—and for that reason, are solvable in polynomial time on a classical computer.   Much of Mandrà et al.’s paper just consists of graphs, wherein they plot the running times of the D-Wave machine and of a classical heuristic on the relevant instances—clearly all different flavors of exponential—and then Edmonds’ matching algorithm from the 1960s, which breaks away from the pack into polynomiality.

But let me bend over backwards to tell you the full story.  Last week, I had the privilege of visiting Texas A&M to give a talk.  While there, I got to meet Helmut Katzgraber, a condensed-matter physicist who’s one of the world experts on quantum annealing experiments, to talk to him about their new response paper.  Helmut was clear in his prediction that, with only small modifications to the instances considered, one could see similar performance by the D-Wave machine while avoiding the reduction to perfect matching.  With those future modifications, it’s possible that one really might see a D-Wave speedup that survived serious attempts by skeptics to make it go away.

But Helmut was equally clear in saying that, even in such a case, he sees no evidence at present that the speedup would be asymptotic or quantum-computational in nature.  In other words, he thinks the existing data is well explained by the observation that we’re comparing D-Wave against classical algorithms for Ising spin minimization problems on Chimera graphs, and D-Wave has heroically engineered an expensive piece of hardware specifically for Ising spin minimization problems on Chimera graphs and basically nothing else.  If so, then the prediction would be that such speedups as can be found are unlikely to extend either to more “practical” optimization problems—which need to be embedded into the Chimera graph with considerable losses—or to better scaling behavior on large instances.  (As usual, as long as the comparison is against the best classical algorithms, and as long as we grant the classical algorithm the same non-quantum advantages that the D-Wave machine enjoys, such as classical parallelism—as Rønnow et al advocated.)

Incidentally, my visit to Texas A&M was partly an “apology tour.”  When I announced on this blog that I was moving from MIT to UT Austin, I talked about the challenge and excitement of setting up a quantum computing research center in a place that currently had little quantum computing for hundreds of miles around.  This thoughtless remark inexcusably left out not only my friends at Louisiana State (like Jon Dowling and Mark Wilde), but even closer to home, Katzgraber and the others at Texas A&M.  I felt terrible about this for months.  So it gives me special satisfaction to have the opportunity to call out Katzgraber’s new work in this post.  In football, UT and A&M were longtime arch-rivals, but when it comes to the appropriate level of skepticism to apply to quantum supremacy claims, the Texas Republic seems remarkably unified.

When 15 MilliKelvin is Toasty

In other D-Wave-related scientific news, on Monday night Tameem Albash, Victor Martin-Mayer, and Itay Hen put out a preprint arguing that, in order for quantum annealing to have any real chance of yielding a speedup over classical optimization methods, the temperature of the annealer should decrease at least like 1/log(n), where n is the instance size, and more likely like 1/nβ (i.e., as an inverse power law).

If this is correct, then cold as the D-Wave machine is, at 0.015 degrees or whatever above absolute zero, it still wouldn’t be cold enough to see a scalable speedup, at least not without quantum fault-tolerance, something that D-Wave has so far eschewed.  With no error-correction, any constant temperature that’s above zero would cause dangerous level-crossings up to excited states when the instances get large enough.  Only a temperature that actually converged to zero as the problems got larger would suffice.

Over the last few years, I’ve heard many experts make this exact same point in conversation, but this is the first time I’ve seen the argument spelled out in a paper, with explicit calculations (modulo assumptions) of the rate at which the temperature would need to go to zero for uncorrected quantum annealing to be a viable path to a speedup.  I lack the expertise to evaluate the calculations myself, but any experts who’d like to share their insight in the comments section are “warmly” (har har) invited.

“Their Current Numbers Are Still To Be Checked”

As some of you will have seen, The Economist now has a sprawling 10-page cover story about quantum computing and other quantum technologies.  I had some contact with the author while the story was in the works.

The piece covers a lot of ground and contains many true statements.  It could be much worse.

But I take issue with two things.

First, The Economist claims: “What is notable about the effort [to build scalable QCs] now is that the challenges are no longer scientific but have become matters of engineering.”  As John Preskill and others pointed out, this is pretty far from true, at least if we interpret the claim in the way most engineers and businesspeople would.

Yes, we know the rules of quantum mechanics, and the theory of quantum fault-tolerance, and a few promising applications; and the basic building blocks of QC have already been demonstrated in several platforms.  But if (let’s say) someone were to pony up $100 billion, asking only for a universal quantum computer as soon as possible, I think the rational thing to do would be to spend initially on a frenzy of basic research: should we bet on superconducting qubits, trapped ions, nonabelian anyons, photonics, a combination thereof, or something else?  (Even that is far from settled.)  Can we invent better error-correcting codes and magic state distillation schemes, in order to push the resource requirements for universal QC down by three or four orders of magnitude?  Which decoherence mechanisms will be relevant when we try to do this stuff at scale?  And of course, which new quantum algorithms can we discover, and which new cryptographic codes resistant to quantum attack?

The second statement I take issue with is this:

“For years experts questioned whether the [D-Wave] devices were actually exploiting quantum mechanics and whether they worked better than traditional computers.  Those questions have since been conclusively answered—yes, and sometimes”

I would instead say that the answers are:

  1. depends on what you mean by “exploit” (yes, there are quantum tunneling effects, but do they help you solve problems faster?), and
  2. no, the evidence remains weak to nonexistent that the D-Wave machine solves anything faster than a traditional computer—certainly if, by “traditional computer,” we mean a device that gets all the advantages of the D-Wave machine (e.g., classical parallelism, hardware heroically specialized to the one type of problem we’re testing on), but no quantum effects.

Shortly afterward, when discussing the race to achieve “quantum supremacy” (i.e., a clear quantum computing speedup for some task, not necessarily a useful one), the Economist piece hedges: “D-Wave has hinted it has already [achieved quantum supremacy], but has made similar claims in the past; their current numbers are still to be checked.”

To me, “their current numbers are still to be checked” deserves its place alongside “mistakes were made” among the great understatements of the English language—perhaps a fitting honor for The Economist.

Defeat Device

Some of you might also have seen that D-Wave announced a deal with Volkswagen, to use D-Wave machines for traffic flow.  I had some advance warning of this deal, when reporters called asking me to comment on it.  At least in the materials I saw, no evidence is discussed that the D-Wave machine actually solves whatever problem VW is interested in faster than it could be solved with a classical computer.  Indeed, in a pattern we’ve seen repeatedly for the past decade, the question of such evidence is never even directly confronted or acknowledged.

So I guess I’ll say the same thing here that I said to the journalists.  Namely, until there’s a paper or some other technical information, obviously there’s not much I can say about this D-Wave/Volkswagen collaboration.  But it would be astonishing if quantum supremacy were to be achieved on an application problem of interest to a carmaker, even as scientists struggle to achieve that milestone on contrived and artificial benchmarks, even as the milestone seems repeatedly to elude D-Wave itself on contrived and artificial benchmarks.  In the previous such partnerships—such as that with Lockheed Martin—we can reasonably guess that no convincing evidence for quantum supremacy was found, because if it had been, it would’ve been trumpeted from the rooftops.

Anyway, I confess that I couldn’t resist adding a tiny snark—something about how, if these claims of amazing performance were found not to withstand an examination of the details, it would not be the first time in Volkswagen’s recent history.

Farewell to a Visionary Leader—One Who Was Trash-Talking Critics on Social Media A Decade Before President Trump

This isn’t really news, but since it happened since my last D-Wave post, I figured I should share.  Apparently D-Wave’s outspoken and inimitable founder, Geordie Rose, left D-Wave to form a machine-learning startup (see D-Wave’s leadership page, where Rose is absent).  I wish Geordie the best with his new venture.

Martinis Visits UT Austin

On Feb. 22, we were privileged to have John Martinis of Google visit UT Austin for a day and give the physics colloquium.  Martinis concentrated on the quest to achieve quantum supremacy, in the near future, using sampling problems inspired by theoretical proposals such as BosonSampling and IQP, but tailored to Google’s architecture.  He elaborated on Google’s plan to build a 49-qubit device within the next few years: basically, a 7×7 square array of superconducting qubits with controllable nearest-neighbor couplings.  To a layperson, 49 qubits might sound unimpressive compared to D-Wave’s 2000—but the point is that these qubits will hopefully maintain coherence times thousands of times longer than the D-Wave qubits, and will also support arbitrary quantum computations (rather than only annealing).  Obviously I don’t know whether Google will succeed in its announced plan, but if it does, I’m very optimistic about a convincing quantum supremacy demonstration being possible with this sort of device.

Perhaps most memorably, Martinis unveiled some spectacular data, which showed near-perfect agreement between Google’s earlier 9-qubit quantum computer and the theoretical predictions for a simulation of the Hofstadter butterfly (incidentally invented by Douglas Hofstadter, of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame, when he was still a physics graduate student).  My colleague Andrew Potter explained to me that the Hofstadter butterfly can’t be used to show quantum supremacy, because it’s mathematically equivalent to a system of non-interacting fermions, and can therefore be simulated in classical polynomial time.  But it’s certainly an impressive calibration test for Google’s device.

2000 Qubits Are Easy, 50 Qubits Are Hard

Just like the Google group, IBM has also publicly set itself the ambitious goal of building a 50-qubit superconducting quantum computer in the near future (i.e., the next few years).  Here in Austin, IBM held a quantum computing session at South by Southwest, so I went—my first exposure of any kind to SXSW.  There were 10 or 15 people in the audience; the purpose of the presentation was to walk through the use of the IBM Quantum Experience in designing 5-qubit quantum circuits and submitting them first to a simulator and then to IBM’s actual superconducting device.  (To the end user, of course, the real machine differs from the simulation only in that with the former, you can see the exact effects of decoherence.)  Afterward, I chatted with the presenters, who were extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and relieved (they said) that I found nothing substantial to criticize in their summary of quantum computing.

Hope everyone had a great Pi Day and Ides of March.

“THE TALK”: My quantum computing cartoon with Zach Weinersmith

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

OK, here’s the big entrée that I promised you yesterday:

“THE TALK”: My joint cartoon about quantum comgputing with Zach Weinersmith of SMBC Comics.

Just to whet your appetite:

In case you’re wondering how this came about: after our mutual friend Sean Carroll introduced me and Zach for a different reason, the idea of a joint quantum computing comic just seemed too good to pass up.  The basic premise—“The Talk”—was all Zach.  I dutifully drafted some dialogue for him, which he then improved and illustrated.  I.e., he did almost all the work (despite having a newborn competing for his attention!).  Still, it was an honor for me to collaborate with one of the great visual artists of our time, and I hope you like the result.  Beyond that, I’ll let the work speak for itself.

Quantum computing news (98% Trump-free)

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

(1) Apparently Microsoft has decided to make a major investment in building topological quantum computers, which will include hiring Charles Marcus and Matthias Troyer among others.  See here for their blog post, and here for the New York Times piece.  In the race to implement QC among the established corporate labs, Microsoft thus joins the Martinis group at Google, as well as the IBM group at T. J. Watson—though both Google and IBM are focused on superconducting qubits, rather than the more exotic nonabelian anyon approach that Microsoft has long favored and is now doubling down on.  I don’t really know more about this new initiative beyond what’s in the articles, but I know many of the people involved, they’re some of the most serious in the business, and Microsoft intensifying its commitment to QC can only be good for the field.  I wish the new effort every success, despite being personally agnostic between superconducting qubits, trapped ions, photonics, nonabelian anyons, and other QC hardware proposals—whichever one gets there first is fine with me!

(2) For me, though, perhaps the most exciting QC development of the last month was a new preprint by my longtime friend Dorit Aharonov and her colleague Yosi Atia, entitled Fast-Forwarding of Hamiltonians and Exponentially Precise Measurements.  In this work, Dorit and Yosi wield the clarifying sword of computational complexity at one of the most historically confusing issues in quantum mechanics: namely, the so-called “time-energy uncertainty principle” (TEUP).

The TEUP says that, just as position and momentum are conjugate in quantum mechanics, so too are energy and time—with greater precision in energy corresponding to lesser precision in time and vice versa.  The trouble is, it was never 100% clear what the TEUP even meant—after all, time isn’t even an observable in quantum mechanics, just an external parameter—and, to whatever extent the TEUP did have a definite meaning, it wasn’t clear that it was true.  Indeed, as Dorit and Yosi’s paper discusses in detail, in 1961 Dorit’s uncle Yakir Aharonov, together with David Bohm, gave a counterexample to a natural interpretation of the TEUP.  But, despite this and other counterexamples, the general feeling among physicists—who, after all, are physicists!—seems to have been that some corrected version of the TEUP should hold “in all reasonable circumstances.”

But, OK, what do we mean by a “reasonable circumstance”?  This is where Dorit and Yosi come in.   In the new work, they present a compelling case that the TEUP should really be formulated as a tradeoff between the precision of energy measurements and circuit complexity (that is, the minimum number of gates needed to implement the energy measurement)—and in that amended form, the TEUP holds for exactly those Hamiltonians H that can’t be “computationally fast-forwarded.”  In other words, it holds whenever applying the unitary transformation e-iHt requires close to t computation steps, when there’s no magical shortcut that lets you simulate t steps of time evolution with only (say) log(t) steps.  And, just as the physicists handwavingly thought, that should indeed hold for “generic” Hamiltonians H (assuming BQP≠PSPACE), although it’s possible to use Shor’s algorithm, for finding the order of an element in a multiplicative group, to devise a counterexample to it.

Anyway, there’s lots of other stuff in the paper, including a connection to the stuff Lenny Susskind and I have been doing about the “generic” growth of circuit complexity, in the CFT dual of an expanding wormhole (where we also needed to assume BQP≠PSPACE and closely related complexity separations, for much the same reasons).  Congratulations to Dorit and Yosi for once again illustrating the long reach of computational complexity in physics, and for giving me a reason to be happy this month!

(3) As many of you will have seen, my former MIT colleagues, Lior Eldar and Peter Shor, recently posted an arXiv preprint claiming a bombshell result: namely, a polynomial-time quantum algorithm to solve a variant of the Closest Vector Problem in lattices.  Their claimed algorithm wouldn’t yet break lattice-based cryptography, but if the approximation factors could be improved, it would be well on the way to doing so.  This has been one of the most tempting targets for quantum algorithms research for more than twenty years—ever since Shor’s “original” algorithm laid waste to RSA, Diffie-Hellman, elliptic-curve cryptography, and more in a world with scalable quantum computers, leaving lattice-based cryptography as one of the few public-key crypto proposals still standing.

Unfortunately, Lior tells me that Oded Regev has discovered a flaw in the algorithm, which he and Peter don’t currently know how to fix.  So for now, they’re withdrawing the paper (because of the Thanksgiving holiday, the withdrawal won’t take effect on the arXiv until Monday).  It’s still a worthy attempt on a great problem—here’s hoping that they or someone else manage to, as Lior put it to me, “make the algorithm great again.”