Archive for the ‘Quantum’ Category

Quantum computing for policymakers and philosopher-novelists

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

Last week Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, the great philosopher and novelist who I’m privileged to call a friend, wrote to ask me whether I “see any particular political and security problems that are raised by quantum computing,” to help her prepare for a conference she’d be attending in which that question would be discussed.  So I sent her the response below, and then decided that it might be of broader interest.

Shtetl-Optimized regulars and QC aficionados will find absolutely nothing new here—move right along, you’ve been warned.  But I decided to post my (slightly edited) response to Rebecca anyway, for two reasons.  First, so I have something to send anyone who asks me the same question in the future—something that, moreover, as Feynman said about the Feynman Lectures on Physics, contains views “not far from my own.”  And second, because, while of course I’ve written many other popular-level quantum computing essays, with basically all of them, my goal was to get the reader to hear the music, so to speak.  On reflection, though, I think there might also be some value in a piece for business and policy people (not to mention humanist intellectuals) that sets aside the harmony of the interfering amplitudes, and just tries to convey some of the words to the song without egregious howlers—which is what Rebecca’s question about “political and security problems” forced me to do.  This being quantum computing, of course, much of what one finds in the press doesn’t even get the lyrics right!  So without further ado:


Dear Rebecca,

If you want something serious and thoughtful about your question, you probably won’t do much better than the recent essay “The Potential Impact of Quantum Computers on Society,” by my longtime friend and colleague Ronald de Wolf.

To elaborate my own thoughts, though: I feel like the political and security problems raised by quantum computing are mostly the usual ones raised by any new technology (national prestige competitions, haves vs have-nots, etc)—but with one added twist, coming from quantum computers’ famous ability to break our current methods for public-key cryptography.

As Ronald writes, you should think of a quantum computer as a specialized device, which is unlikely to improve all or even most of what we do with today’s computers, but which could give dramatic speedups for a few specific problems.  There are three most important types of applications that we know about today:

(1) Simulation of quantum physics and chemistry. This was Richard Feynman’s original application when he proposed quantum computing in 1981, and I think it’s still the most important one economically.  Having a fast, general-purpose quantum simulator could help a lot in designing new drugs, materials, solar cells, high-temperature superconductors, chemical reactions for making fertilizer, etc.  Obviously, these are not applications like web browsing or email that will directly affect the everyday computer user.  But they’re areas where you’d only need a few high-profile successes to generate billions of dollars of value.

(2) Breaking existing public-key cryptography.  This is the most direct political and security implication.  Every time you visit a website that begins with “https,” the authentication and encryption—including, e.g., protecting your credit card number—happen using a cryptosystem based on factoring integers or discrete logarithms or a few other related problems in number theory.  A full, universal quantum computer, if built, is known to be able to break all of this.

Having said that, we all know today that hackers, and intelligence agencies, can compromise people’s data in hundreds of more prosaic ways than by building a quantum computer!  Usually they don’t even bother trying to break the encryption, relying instead on poor implementations and human error.

And it’s also important to understand that a quantum computer wouldn’t mean the end of online security.  There are public-key cryptosystems currently under development—most notably, those based on lattices—that are believed to resist attack even by quantum computers; NIST is planning to establish standards for these systems over the next few years.  Switching to these “post-quantum” systems would be a significant burden, much like fixing the Y2K bug (and they’re also somewhat slower than our current systems), but hopefully it would only need to happen once.

As you might imagine, there’s some interest in switching to post-quantum cryptosystems even now—for example, if you wanted to encrypt messages today with some confidence they won’t be decrypted even 30 years from now.  Google did a trial of a post-quantum cryptosystem two years ago.  On the other hand, given that a large fraction of web servers still use 512-bit “export grade” cryptography that was already breakable in the 1990s (good news: commenter Viktor Dukhovni tells me that this has now been mostly fixed, since security experts, including my childhood friend Alex Halderman, raised a stink about it a few years ago), it’s a safe bet that getting everyone to upgrade would take quite a long time, even if the experts agreed (which they don’t yet) which of the various post-quantum cryptosystems should become the new standard.  And since, as I said, most attacks target mistakes in implementation rather than the underlying cryptography, we should expect any switch to post-quantum cryptography to make security worse rather than better in the short run.

As a radical alternative to post-quantum crypto, there’s also (ironically enough) quantum cryptography, which doesn’t work over the existing Internet—it requires setting up new communications infrastructure—but which has already been deployed in a tiny number of places, and which promises security based only on quantum physics (and, of course, on the proper construction of the hardware), as opposed to mathematical problems that a quantum computer or any other kind of computer could potentially solve.  According to a long-running joke (or not-quite-joke) in our field, one of the central applications of quantum computing will be to create demand for quantum cryptography!

Finally, there’s private-key cryptography—i.e., the traditional kind, where the sender and recipient meet in secret to agree on a key in advance—which is hardly threatened by quantum computing at all: you can achieve the same level of security as before, we think, by simply doubling the key lengths.  If there’s no constraint on key length, then the ultimate here is the one-time pad, which when used correctly, is theoretically unbreakable by anything short of actual physical access to the sender or recipient (e.g., hacking their computers, or beating down their doors with an ax).  But while private-key crypto might be fine for spy agencies, it’s impractical for widespread deployment on the Internet, unless we also have a secure way to distribute the keys.  This is precisely where public-key crypto typically gets used today, and where quantum crypto could in principle be used in the future: to exchange private keys that are then used to encrypt and decrypt the actual data.

I should also mention that, because it breaks elliptic-curve-based signature schemes, a quantum computer might let a thief steal billions of dollars’ worth of Bitcoin.  Again, this could in principle be fixed by migrating Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) to quantum-resistant cryptographic problems, but that hasn’t been done yet.

(3) Optimization and machine learning.  These are obviously huge application areas for industry, defense, and pretty much anything else.  The main issue is just that we don’t know how to get as large a speedup from a quantum computer as we’d like for these applications.  A quantum computer, we think, will often be able to solve optimization and machine learning problems in something like the square root of the number of steps that would be needed classically, using variants of what’s called Grover’s algorithm.  So, that’s significant, but it’s not the exponential speedup and complete game-changer that we’d have for quantum simulation or for breaking public-key cryptography.  Most likely, a quantum computer will be able to achieve exponential speedups for these sorts of problems only in special cases, and no one knows yet how important those special cases will be in practice.  This is a still-developing research area—there might be further theoretical breakthroughs (in inventing new quantum algorithms, analyzing old algorithms, matching the performance of the quantum algorithms by classical algorithms, etc.), but it’s also possible that we won’t really understand the potential of quantum computers for these sorts of problems until we have the actual devices and can test them out.

 

As for how far away all this is: given the spectacular progress by Google and others over the last few years, my guess is that we’re at most a decade away from some small, special-purpose quantum computers (with ~50-200 qubits) that could be useful for quantum simulation.  These are what the physicist John Preskill called “Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum” (NISQ) computers in his excellent recent essay.

However, my guess is also that it will take longer than that to get the full, error-corrected, universal quantum computers that would be needed for optimization and (most relevant to your question) for breaking public-key cryptography.  Currently, the engineering requirements for a “full, universal” quantum computer look downright scary—so we’re waiting either for further breakthroughs that would cut the costs by a few more orders of magnitude (which, by their very nature, can’t be predicted), or for some modern-day General Groves and Oppenheimer who’d be licensed to spend however many hundreds of billions of dollars it would take to make it happen sooner.

The race to build “NISQ” devices has been heating up, with a shift from pure academic research to venture capitalists and industrial efforts just within the last 4-5 years, noticeably changing the character of our field.

In this particular race, I think that the US is the clear world leader right now—specifically, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, University of Maryland / NIST, and various startups—followed by Europe (with serious experimental efforts in the Netherlands, Austria, and the UK among other places).  Here I should mention that the EU has a new 1-billion-Euro initiative in quantum information.  Other countries that have made or are now making significant investments include Canada, Australia, China, and Israel.  Surprisingly, there’s been very little investment in Russia in this area, and less than I would’ve expected in Japan.

China is a very interesting case.  They’ve chosen to focus less on quantum computing than on the related areas of quantum communication and cryptography, where they’ve become the world leader.  Last summer, in a big upset, China launched the first satellite (“Micius”) specifically for quantum communications, and were able to use it to do quantum cryptography and to distribute entanglement over thousands of miles (from one end of China to the other), the previous record being maybe 100 miles.  If the US has anything comparable to this, it isn’t publicly known (my guess is that we don’t).

This past year, there were hearings in Congress about the need for the US to invest more in quantum information, for example to keep up with China, and it looks likely to happen.  As indifferent or hostile as the current administration has been toward science more generally, the government and defense people I’ve met are very much on board with quantum information—often more so than I am!  I’ve even heard China’s Micius satellite referred to as the “quantum Sputnik,” the thing that will spur the US and others to spend much more to keep up.

As you’d imagine, part of me is delighted that something so abstruse, and interesting for fundamental science, and close to my heart, is now getting attention and funding at this level.  But part of me is worried by how much of the current boom I know to be fueled by misconceptions, among policymakers and journalists and the general public, about what quantum computers will be able to do for us once we have them.  Basically, people think they’ll be magic oracles that will solve all problems faster, rather than just special classes of problems like the ones I enumerated above—and that they’ll simply allow the continuation of the Moore’s Law that we know and love, rather than being something fundamentally different.  I’ve been trying to correct these misconceptions, on my blog and elsewhere, to anyone who will listen, for all the good that’s done!  In any case, the history of AI reminds us that a crash could easily follow the current boom-time, if the results of quantum computing research don’t live up to people’s expectations.

I guess there’s one final thing I’ll say.  Quantum computers are sometimes analogized to nuclear weapons, as a disruptive technology with implications for global security that scientists theorized about decades before it became technically feasible.  But there are some fundamental differences.  Most obviously: the deterrent value of a nuclear weapon comes if everyone knows you have it but you never need to use it, whereas the intelligence value of a quantum computer comes if you use it but no one knows you have it.

(Which is related to how the Manhattan Project entered the world’s consciousness in August 1945, whereas Bletchley Park—which was much more important to the actual winning of WWII—remained secret until the 1970s.)

As I said before, once your adversaries realized that you had a universal quantum computer, or might have one soon, they could switch to quantum-resistant forms of encryption, at least for their most sensitive secrets—in which case, as far as encryption was concerned, everyone would be more-or-less back where they started.  Such a switch would be onerous, cost billions of dollars, and (in practice) probably open up its own security holes unrelated to quantum computing.  But we think we already basically understand how to do it.

This is one reason why, even in a hypothetical future where hostile powers got access to quantum computers (and despite the past two years, I still don’t think of the US as a “hostile power”—I mean, like, North Korea or ISIS or something…!)—even in that future, I’d still be much less concerned about the hostile powers having this brand-new technology, than I’d be about their having the generations-old technology of fission and fusion bombs.

Best,
Scott


Unrelated Update (June 8): Ian Tierney asked me to advertise a Kickstarter for a short film that he’s planning to make about Richard Feynman, and a letter that he wrote to his first wife Arlene after she died.

The relativized BQP vs. PH problem (1993-2018)

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

Update (June 4): OK, I think the blog formatting issues are fixed now—thanks so much to Jesse Kipp for his help!


True story.  A couple nights ago, I was sitting in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building, watching Gilles Brassard and Charles Bennett receive the Wolf Prize in Physics for their foundational contributions to quantum computing and information.  (The other laureates included, among others, Beilinson and Drinfeld in mathematics; the American honeybee researcher Gene Robinson; and Sir Paul McCartney, who did not show up for the ceremony.)

Along with the BB84 quantum cryptography scheme, the discovery of quantum teleportation, and much else, Bennett and Brassard’s seminal work included some of the first quantum oracle results, such as the BBBV Theorem (Bennett, Bernstein, Brassard, Vazirani), which proved the optimality of Grover’s search algorithm, and thus the inability of quantum computers to solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time in the black-box setting.  It thereby set the stage for much of my own career.  Of course, the early giants were nice enough to bequeath to us a few problems they weren’t able to solve, such as: is there an oracle relative to which quantum computers can solve some problem outside the entire polynomial hierarchy (PH)?  That particular problem, in fact, had been open from 1993 all the way to the present, resisting sporadic attacks by me and others.

As I sat through the Wolf Prize ceremony — the speeches in Hebrew that I only 20% understood (though with these sorts of speeches, you can sort of fill in the inspirational sayings for yourself); the applause as one laureate after another announced that they were donating their winnings to charity; the ironic spectacle of far-right, ultranationalist Israeli politicians having to sit through a beautiful (and uncensored) choral rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” — I got an email from my friend and colleague Avishay Tal.  Avishay wrote that he and Ran Raz had just posted a paper online giving an oracle separation between BQP and PH, thereby putting to rest that quarter-century-old problem.  So I was faced with a dilemma: do I look up, at the distinguished people from the US, Canada, Japan, and elsewhere winning medals in Israel, or down at my phone, at the bombshell paper by two Israelis now living in the US?

For those tuning in from home, BQP, or Bounded-Error Quantum Polynomial Time, is the class of decision problems efficiently solvable by a quantum computer.  PH, or the Polynomial Hierarchy, is a generalization of NP to allow multiple quantifiers (e.g., does there exist a setting of these variables such that for every setting of those variables, this Boolean formula is satisfied?).  These are two of the most fundamental complexity classes, which is all the motivation one should need for wondering whether the former is contained in the latter.  If additional motivation is needed, though, we’re effectively asking: could quantum computers still solve problems that were classically hard, even in a hypothetical world where P=NP (and hence P=PH also)?  If so, the problems in question could not be any of the famous ones like factoring or discrete logarithms; they’d need to be stranger problems, for which a classical computer couldn’t even recognize a solution efficiently, let alone finding it.

And just so we’re on the same page: if BQP ⊆ PH, then one could hope for a straight-up proof of the containment, but if BQP ⊄ PH, then there’s no way to prove such a thing unconditionally, without also proving (at a minimum) that P ≠ PSPACE.  In the latter case, the best we can hope is to provide evidence for a non-containment—for example, by showing that BQP ⊄ PH relative to a suitable oracle.  What’s noteworthy here is that even the latter, limited goal remained elusive for decades.

In 1993, Bernstein and Vazirani defined an oracle problem called Recursive Fourier Sampling (RFS), and proved it was in BQP but not in BPP (Bounded-Error Probabilistic Polynomial-Time).  One can also show without too much trouble that RFS is not in NP or MA, though one gets stuck trying to put it outside AM.  Bernstein and Vazirani conjectured—at least verbally, I don’t think in writing—that RFS wasn’t even in the polynomial hierarchy.  In 2003, I did some work on Recursive Fourier Sampling, but was unable to find a version that I could prove was outside PH.

Maybe this is a good place to explain that, by a fundamental connection made in the 1980s, proving that oracle problems are outside the polynomial hierarchy is equivalent to proving lower bounds on the sizes of AC0 circuits—or more precisely, constant-depth Boolean circuits with unbounded fan-in and a quasipolynomial number of AND, OR, and NOT gates.  And proving lower bounds on the sizes of AC0 circuits is (just) within complexity theory’s existing abilities—that’s how, for example, Furst-Saxe-Sipser, Ajtai, and Yao managed to show that PH ≠ PSPACE relative to a suitable oracle (indeed, even a random oracle with probability 1).  Alas, from a lower bounds standpoint, Recursive Fourier Sampling is a horrendously complicated problem, and none of the existing techniques seemed to work for it.  And that wasn’t even the only problem: even if one somehow succeeded, the separation that one could hope for from RFS was only quasipolynomial (n versus nlog n), rather than exponential.

Ten years ago, as I floated in a swimming pool in Cambridge, MA, it occurred to me that RFS was probably the wrong way to go.  If you just wanted an oracle separation between BQP and PH, you should focus on a different kind of problem—something like what I’d later call Forrelation.  The Forrelation problem asks: given black-box access to two Boolean functions f,g:{0,1}n→{0,1}, are f and g random and independent, or are they random individually but with each one close to the Boolean Fourier transform of the other one?  It’s easy to give a quantum algorithm to solve Forrelation, even with only 1 query.  But the quantum algorithm really seems to require querying all the f- and g-inputs in superposition, to produce an amplitude that’s a global sum of f(x)g(y) terms with massive cancellations in it.  It’s not clear how we’d reproduce this behavior even with the full power of the polynomial hierarchy.  To be clear: to answer the question, it would suffice to show that no AC0 circuit with exp(poly(n)) gates could distinguish a “Forrelated” distribution over (f,g) pairs from the uniform distribution.

Using a related problem, I managed to show that, relative to a suitable oracle—in fact, even a random oracle—the relational version of BQP (that is, the version where we allow problems with many valid outputs) is not contained in the relational version of PH.  I also showed that a lower bound for Forrelation itself, and hence an oracle separation between the “original,” decision versions of BQP and PH, would follow from something that I called the “Generalized Linial-Nisan Conjecture.”  This conjecture talked about the inability of AC0 circuits to distinguish the uniform distribution from distributions that “looked close to uniform locally.”  My banging the drum about this, I’m happy to say, initiated a sequence of events that culminated in Mark Braverman’s breakthrough proof of the original Linial-Nisan Conjecture.  But alas, I later discovered that my generalized version is false.  This meant that different circuit lower bound techniques, ones more tailored to problems like Forrelation, would be needed to go the distance.

I never reached the promised land.  But my consolation prize is that Avishay and Ran have now done so, by taking Forrelation as their jumping-off point but then going in directions that I’d never considered.

As a first step, Avishay and Ran modify the Forrelation problem so that, in the “yes” case, the correlation between f and the Fourier transform of g is much weaker (though still detectable using a quantum algorithm that makes nO(1) queries to f and g).  This seems like an inconsequential change—sure, you can do that, but what does it buy you?—but it turns out to be crucial for their analysis.  Ultimately, this change lets them show that, when we write down a polynomial that expresses an AC0 circuit’s bias in detecting the forrelation between f and g, all the “higher-order contributions”—those involving a product of k terms of the form f(x) or g(y), for some k>2—get exponentially damped as a function of k, so that only the k=2 contributions still matter.

There are a few additional ideas that Raz and Tal need to finish the job.  First, they relax the Boolean functions f and g to real-valued, Gaussian-distributed functions—very similar to what Andris Ambainis and I did when we proved a nearly-tight randomized lower bound for Forrelation, except that they also need to truncate f and g so they take values in [-1,1]; they then prove that a multilinear polynomial has no way to distinguish their real-valued functions from the original Boolean ones.  Second, they exploit recent results of Tal about the Fourier spectra of AC0 functions.  Third, they exploit recent work of Chattopadhyay et al. on pseudorandom generators from random walks (Chattopadhyay, incidentally, recently finished his PhD at UT Austin).  A crucial idea turns out to be to think of the values of f(x) and g(y), in a real-valued Forrelation instance, as sums of huge numbers of independent random contributions.  Formally, this changes nothing: you end up with exactly the same Gaussian distributions that you had before.  Conceptually, though, you can look at how each tiny contribution changes the distinguishing bias, conditioned on the sum of all the previous contributions; and this leads to the suppression of higher-order terms that we talked about before, with the higher-order terms going to zero as the step size does.

Stepping back from the details, though, let me talk about a central conceptual barrier—one that I know from an email exchange with Avishay was on his and Ran’s minds, even though they never discuss it explicitly in their paper.  In my 2009 paper, I identified what I argued was the main reason why no existing technique was able to prove an oracle separation between BQP and PH.  The reason was this: the existing techniques, based on the Switching Lemma and so forth, involved arguing (often implicitly) that

  1. any AC0 circuit can be approximated by a low-degree real polynomial, but
  2. the function that we’re trying to compute can’t be approximated by a low-degree real polynomial.

Linial, Mansour, and Nisan made this fully explicit in the context of their learning algorithm for AC0.  And this is all well and good if, for example, we’re trying to prove the n-bit PARITY function is not in AC0, since PARITY is famously inapproximable by any polynomial of sublinear degree.  But what if we’re trying to separate BQP from PH?  In that case, we need to deal with the fundamental observation of Beals et al. 1998: that any function with a fast quantum algorithm, by virtue of having a fast quantum algorithm, is approximable by a low-degree real polynomial!  Approximability by low-degree polynomials giveth with the one hand and taketh away with the other.

To be sure, I pointed out that this barrier wasn’t necessarily insuperable.  For the precise meaning of “approximable by low-degree polynomials” that follows from a function’s being in BQP, might be different from the meaning that’s used to put the function outside of PH.  As one illustration, Razborov and Smolensky’s AC0 lower bound method relates having a small constant-depth circuit to being approximable by low-degree polynomials over finite fields, which is different from being approximable by low-degree polynomials over the reals.  But this didn’t mean I knew an actual way around the barrier: I had no idea how to prove that Forrelation wasn’t approximable by low-degree polynomials over finite fields either.

So then how do Raz and Tal get around the barrier?  Apparently, by exploiting the fact that Tal’s recent results imply much more than just that AC0 functions are approximable by low-degree real polynomials.  Rather, they imply approximability by low-degree real polynomials with bounded L1 norms (i.e., sums of absolute values) of their coefficients.  And crucially, these norm bounds even apply to the degree-2 part of a polynomial—showing that, even all the way down there, the polynomial can’t be “spread around,” with equal weight on all its coefficients.  But being “spread around” is exactly how the true polynomial for Forrelation—the one that you derive from the quantum algorithm—works.  The polynomial looks like this:

$$ p(f,g) = \frac{1}{2^{3n/2}} \sum_{x,y \in \left\{0,1\right\}^n} (-1)^{x \cdot y} f(x) g(y). $$

This still isn’t enough for Raz and Tal to conclude that Forrelation itself is not in AC0: after all, the higher-degree terms in the polynomial might somehow compensate for the failures of the lower-degree terms.  But this difference between the two different kinds of low-degree polynomial—the “thin” kind that you get from AC0 circuits, and the “thick” kind that you get from quantum algorithms—gives them an opening that they’re able to combine with the other ideas mentioned above, at least for their noisier version of the Forrelation problem.

This difference between “thin” and “thick” polynomials is closely related to, though not identical with, a second difference, which is that any AC0 circuit needs to compute some total Boolean function, whereas a quantum algorithm is allowed to be indecisive on many inputs, accepting them with a probability that’s close neither to 0 nor to 1.  Tal used the fact that an AC0 circuit computes a total Boolean function, in his argument showing that it gives rise to a “thin” low-degree polynomial.  His argument also implies that no low-degree polynomial that’s “thick,” like the above quantum-algorithm-derived polynomial for Forrelation, can possibly represent a total Boolean function: it must be indecisive on many inputs.

The boundedness of the L1 norm of the coefficients is related to a different condition on low-degree polynomials, which I called the “low-fat condition” in my Counterexample to the Generalized Linial-Nisan Conjecture paper.  However, the whole point of that paper was that the low-fat condition turns out not to work, in the sense that there exist depth-three AC0 circuits that are not approximable by any low-degree polynomials satisfying the condition.  Raz and Tal’s L1 boundedness condition, besides being simpler, also has the considerable advantage that it works.

As Lance Fortnow writes, in his blog post about this achievment, an obvious next step would be to give an oracle relative to which P=NP but P≠BQP.  I expect that this can be done.  Another task is to show that my original Forrelation problem is not in PH—or more generally, to broaden the class of problems that can be handled using Raz and Tal’s methods.  And then there’s one of my personal favorite problems, which seems closely related to BQP vs. PH even though it’s formally incomparable: give an oracle relative to which a quantum computer can’t always prove its answer to a completely classical skeptic via an interactive protocol.

Since (despite my journalist moratorium) a journalist already emailed to ask me about the practical implications of the BQP vs. PH breakthrough—for example, for the ~70-qubit quantum computers that Google and others hope to build in the near future—let me take the opportunity to say that, as far as I can see, there aren’t any.  This is partly because Forrelation is an oracle problem, one that we don’t really know how to instantiate explicitly (in the sense, for example, that factoring and discrete logarithm instantiate Shor’s period-finding algorithm).  And it’s partly because, even if you did want to run the quantum algorithm for Forrelation (or for Raz and Tal’s noisy Forrelation) on a near-term quantum computer, you could easily do that sans the knowledge that the problem sits outside the polynomial hierarchy.

Still, as Avi Wigderson never tires of reminding people, theoretical computer science is richly interconnected, and things can turn up in surprising places.  To take a relevant example: Forrelation, which I introduced for the purely theoretical purpose of separating BQP from PH (and which Andris Ambainis and I later used for another purely theoretical purpose, to prove a maximal separation between randomized and quantum query complexities), now furnishes one of the main separating examples in the field of quantum machine learning algorithms.  So it’s early to say what implications Avishay and Ran’s achievement might ultimately have.  In any case, huge congratulations to them.

PDQP/qpoly = ALL

Saturday, May 19th, 2018

I’ve put up a new paper.  Unusually for me these days, it’s a very short and simple one (8 pages)—I should do more like this!  Here’s the abstract:

    We show that combining two different hypothetical enhancements to quantum computation—namely, quantum advice and non-collapsing measurements—would let a quantum computer solve any decision problem whatsoever in polynomial time, even though neither enhancement yields extravagant power by itself. This complements a related result due to Raz. The proof uses locally decodable codes.

I welcome discussion in the comments.  The real purpose of this post is simply to fulfill a request by James Gallagher, in the comments of my Robin Hanson post:

The probably last chance for humanity involves science progressing, can you apply your efforts to quantum computers, which is your expertise, and stop wasting many hours of you [sic] time with this [expletive deleted]

Indeed, I just returned to Tel Aviv, for the very tail end of my sabbatical, from a weeklong visit to Google’s quantum computing group in LA.  While we mourned tragedies—multiple members of the quantum computing community lost loved ones in recent weeks—it was great to be among so many friends, and great to talk and think for once about actual progress that’s happening in the world, as opposed to people saying mean things on Twitter.  Skipping over its plans to build a 49-qubit chip, Google is now going straight for 72 qubits.  And we now have some viable things that one can do, or try to do, with such a chip, beyond simply proving quantum supremacy—I’ll say more about that in subsequent posts.

Anyway, besides discussing this progress, the other highlight of my trip was going from LA to Santa Barbara on the back of Google physicist Sergio Boixo’s motorcycle—weaving in and out of rush-hour traffic, the tightness of my grip the only thing preventing me from flying out onto the freeway.  I’m glad to have tried it once, and probably won’t be repeating it.


Update: I posted a new version of the PDQP/qpoly=ALL paper, which includes an observation about communication complexity, and which—inspired by the comments section—clarifies that when I say “all languages,” I really do mean “all languages” (even the halting problem).

Review of Vivek Wadhwa’s Washington Post column on quantum computing

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

Various people pointed me to a Washington Post piece by Vivek Wadhwa, entitled “Quantum computers may be more of an immiment threat than AI.”  I know I’m late to the party, but in the spirit of Pete Wells’ famous New York Times “review” of Guy Fieri’s now-closed Times Square restaurant, I have a few questions that have been gnawing at me:

Mr. Wadhwa, when you decided to use the Traveling Salesman Problem as your go-to example of a problem that quantum computers can solve quickly, did the thought ever cross your mind that maybe you should look this stuff up first—let’s say, on Wikipedia?  Or that you should email one person—just one, anywhere on the planet—who works in quantum algorithms?

When you wrote of the Traveling Salesman Problem that “[i]t would take a laptop computer 1,000 years to compute the most efficient route between 22 cities”—how confident are you about that?  Willing to bet your house?  Your car?  How much would it blow your mind if I told you that a standard laptop, running a halfway decent algorithm, could handle 22 cities in a fraction of a second?

When you explained that quantum computing is “equivalent to opening a combination lock by trying every possible number and sequence simultaneously,” where did this knowledge come from?  Did it come from the same source you consulted before you pronounced the death of Bitcoin … in January 2016?

Had you wanted to consult someone who knew the first thing about quantum computing, the subject of your column, would you have been able to use a search engine to find one?  Or would you have simply found another “expert,” in the consulting or think-tank worlds, who “knew” the same things about quantum computing that you do?

Incidentally, when you wrote that quantum computing “could pose a greater burden on businesses than the Y2K computer bug did toward the end of the ’90s,” were you trying to communicate how large the burden might be?

And when you wrote that

[T]here is substantial progress in the development of algorithms that are “quantum safe.” One promising field is matrix multiplication, which takes advantage of the techniques that allow quantum computers to be able to analyze so much information.

—were you generating random text using one of those Markov chain programs?  If not, then what were you referring to?

Would you agree that the Washington Post has been a leader in investigative journalism exposing Trump’s malfeasance?  Do you, like me, consider them one of the most important venues on earth for people to be able to trust right now?  How does it happen that the Washington Post publishes a quantum computing piece filled with errors that would embarrass a high-school student doing a term project (and we won’t even count the reference to Stephen “Hawkings”—that’s a freebie)?

Were the fact-checkers home with the flu?  Did they give your column a pass simply because it was “perspective” rather than news?  Or did they trust you as a widely-published technology expert?  How does one become such an expert, anyway?

Thanks!


Update (Feb. 21): For casual readers, Vivek Wadhwa quickly came into the comments section to try to defend himself—before leaving in a huff as a chorus of commenters tried to explain why he was wrong. As far as I know, he has not posted any corrections to his Washington Post piece. Wadhwa’s central defense was that he was simply repeating what Michelle Simmons, a noted quantum computing experimentalist in Australia, said in various talks in YouTube—which turns out to be largely true (though Wadhwa said explicitly that quantum computers could efficiently solve TSP, while Simmons mostly left this as an unstated implication). As a result, while Wadhwa should obviously have followed the journalistic practice of checking incredible-sounding claims—on Wikipedia if nowhere else!—before repeating them in the Washington Post, I now feel that Simmons shares in the responsibility for this. As John Preskill tweeted, an excellent lesson to draw from this affair is that everyone in our field needs to be careful to say things that are true when speaking to the public.

Three updates

Monday, February 5th, 2018
  1. I was extremely sorry to learn about the loss of Joe Polchinski, a few days ago, to brain cancer.  Joe was a leading string theorist, one of the four co-discoverers of the AMPS firewall paradox, and one of the major figures in the Simons It from Qubit collaboration that I’ve been happy to be part of since its inception.  I regret that I didn’t get to know Joe as well as I should have, but he was kind to me in all of our interactions.  He’ll be missed by all who knew him.
  2. Edge has posted what will apparently be its final Annual Edge Question: “What is the last question?”  They asked people to submit just a single, one sentence question “for which they’ll be remembered,” with no further explanation or elaboration.  You can read mine, which not surprisingly is alphabetically the first.  I tried to devise a single question that gestured toward the P vs. NP problem, and the ultimate physical limits of computation, and the prospects for superintelligent AI, and the enormity of what could be Platonically lying in wait for us within finite but exponentially search spaces, and the eternal nerd’s conundrum, of the ability to get the right answers to clearly-stated questions being so ineffectual in the actual world.  I’m not thrilled with the result, but reading through the other questions makes it clear just how challenging it is to ask something that doesn’t boil down to: “When will the rest of the world recognize the importance of my research topic?”
  3. I’m now reaping the fruits of my decision to take a year-long sabbatical from talking to journalists.  Ariel Bleicher, a writer for Quanta magazine, asked to interview me for an article she was writing about the difficulty of establishing quantum supremacy.  I demurred, mentioning my sabbatical, and pointed her to others she could ask instead.  Well, last week the article came out, and while much of it is quite good, it opens with an extended presentation of a forehead-bangingly wrong claim by Cristian Calude: namely, that the Deutsch-Jozsa problem (i.e. computing the parity of two bits) can be solved with one query even by a classical algorithm, so that (in effect) one of the central examples used in introductory quantum computing courses is a lie.  This claim is based on a 2006 paper wherein, with all the benefits of theft over honest toil, Calude changes the query model so that you can evaluate not just the original oracle function f, but an extension of f to the complex numbers (!).  Apparently Calude justifies this by saying that Deutsch also changed the problem, by allowing it to be solved with a quantum computer, so he gets to change the problem as well.  The difference, of course, is that the quantum query complexity model is justified by its relevance for quantum algorithms, and (ultimately) by quantum mechanics being true of our world.  Calude’s model, by contrast, is (as far as I can tell) pulled out of thin air and justified by nothing.  Anyway, I regard this incident as entirely, 100% my fault, and 0% Ariel’s.  How was she to know that, while there are hundreds of knowledgeable quantum computing experts to interview, almost all of them are nice and polite?  Anyway, this has led me to a revised policy: while I’ll still decline interviews, news organizations should feel free to run completed quantum computing pieces by me for quick fact checks.

Interpretive cards (MWI, Bohm, Copenhagen: collect ’em all)

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

I’ve been way too distracted by actual research lately from my primary career as a nerd blogger—that’s what happens when you’re on sabbatical.  But now I’m sick, and in no condition to be thinking about research.  And this morning, in a thread that had turned to my views on the interpretation of quantum mechanics called “QBism,” regular commenter Atreat asked me the following pointed question:

Scott, what is your preferred interpretation of QM? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you put your cards on the table and lay out clearly what interpretation(s) you think are closest to the truth. I don’t think your ghost paper qualifies as an answer, BTW. I’ve heard you say you have deep skepticism about objective collapse theories and yet these would seemingly be right up your philosophical alley so to speak. If you had to bet on which interpretation was closest to the truth, which one would you go with?

Many people have asked me some variant of the same thing.  As it happens, I’d been toying since the summer with a huge post about my views on each major interpretation, but I never quite got it into a form I wanted.  By contrast, it took me only an hour to write out a reply to Atreat, and in the age of social media and attention spans measured in attoseconds, many readers will probably prefer that short reply to the huge post anyway.  So then I figured, why not promote it to a full post and be done with it?  So without further ado:


Dear Atreat,

It’s no coincidence that you haven’t seen me put my cards on the table with a favored interpretation of QM!

There are interpretations (like the “transactional interpretation”) that make no sense whatsoever to me.

There are “interpretations” like dynamical collapse that aren’t interpretations at all, but proposals for new physical theories.  By all means, let’s test QM on larger and larger systems, among other reasons because it could tell us that some such theory is true or—vastly more likely, I think—place new limits on it! (People are trying.)

Then there’s the deBroglie-Bohm theory, which does lay its cards on the table in a very interesting way, by proposing a specific evolution rule for hidden variables (chosen to match the predictions of QM), but which thereby opens itself up to the charge of non-uniqueness: why that rule, as opposed to a thousand other rules that someone could write down?  And if they all lead to the same predictions, then how could anyone ever know which rule was right?

And then there are dozens of interpretations that seem to differ from one of the “main” interpretations (Many-Worlds, Copenhagen, Bohm) mostly just in the verbal patter.

As for Copenhagen, I’ve described it as “shut-up and calculate except without ever shutting up about it”!  I regard Bohr’s writings on the subject as barely comprehensible, and Copenhagen as less of an interpretation than a self-conscious anti-interpretation: a studied refusal to offer any account of the actual constituents of the world, and—most of all—an insistence that if you insist on such an account, then that just proves that you cling naïvely to a classical worldview, and haven’t grasped the enormity of the quantum revolution.

But the basic split between Many-Worlds and Copenhagen (or better: between Many-Worlds and “shut-up-and-calculate” / “QM needs no interpretation” / etc.), I regard as coming from two fundamentally different conceptions of what a scientific theory is supposed to do for you.  Is it supposed to posit an objective state for the universe, or be only a tool that you use to organize your experiences?

Also, are the ultimate equations that govern the universe “real,” while tables and chairs are “unreal” (in the sense of being no more than fuzzy approximate descriptions of certain solutions to the equations)?  Or are the tables and chairs “real,” while the equations are “unreal” (in the sense of being tools invented by humans to predict the behavior of tables and chairs and whatever else, while extraterrestrials might use other tools)?  Which level of reality do you care about / want to load with positive affect, and which level do you want to denigrate?

This is not like picking a race horse, in the sense that there might be no future discovery or event that will tell us who was closer to the truth.  I regard it as conceivable that superintelligent AIs will still argue about the interpretation of QM … or maybe that God and the angels argue about it now.

Indeed, about the only thing I can think of that might definitively settle the debate, would be the discovery of an even deeper level of description than QM—but such a discovery would “settle” the debate only by completely changing the terms of it.

I will say this, however, in favor of Many-Worlds: it’s clearly and unequivocally the best interpretation of QM, as long as we leave ourselves out of the picture!  I.e., as long as we say that the goal of physics is to give the simplest, cleanest possible mathematical description of the world that somewhere contains something that seems to correspond to observation, and we’re willing to shunt as much metaphysical weirdness as needed to those who worry themselves about details like “wait, so are we postulating the physical existence of a continuum of slightly different variants of me, or just an astronomically large finite number?” (Incidentally, Max Tegmark’s “mathematical multiverse” does even better than MWI by this standard.  Tegmark is the one waiting for you all the way at the bottom of the slippery slope of always preferring Occam’s Razor over trying to account for the specificity of the observed world.)  It’s no coincidence, I don’t think, that MWI is so popular among those who are also eliminativists about consciousness.

When I taught my undergrad Intro to Quantum Information course last spring—for which lecture notes are coming soon, by the way!—it was striking how often I needed to resort to an MWI-like way of speaking when students got confused about measurement and decoherence. (“So then we apply this unitary transformation U that entangles the system and environment, and we compute a partial trace over the environment qubits, and we see that it’s as if the system has been measured, though of course we could in principle reverse this by applying U-1 … oh shoot, have I just conceded MWI?”)

On the other hand, when (at the TAs’ insistence) we put an optional ungraded question on the final exam that asked students their favorite interpretation of QM, we found that there was no correlation whatsoever between interpretation and final exam score—except that students who said they didn’t believe any interpretation at all, or that the question was meaningless or didn’t matter, scored noticeably higher than everyone else.

Anyway, as I said, MWI is the best interpretation if we leave ourselves out of the picture.  But you object: “OK, and what if we don’t leave ourselves out of the picture?  If we dig deep enough on the interpretation of QM, aren’t we ultimately also asking about the ‘hard problem of consciousness,’ much as some people try to deny that? So for example, what would it be like to be maintained in a coherent superposition of thinking two different thoughts A and B, and then to get measured in the |A⟩+|B⟩, |A⟩-|B⟩ basis?  Would it even be like anything?  Or is there something about our consciousness that depends on decoherence, irreversibility, full participation in the arrow of the time, not living in an enclosed little unitary box like AdS/CFT—something that we’d necessarily destroy if we tried to set up a large-scale interference experiment on our own brains, or any other conscious entities?  If so, then wouldn’t that point to a strange sort of reconciliation of Many-Worlds with Copenhagen—where as soon as we had a superposition involving different subjective experiences, for that very reason its being a superposition would be forevermore devoid of empirical consequences, and we could treat it as just a classical probability distribution?”

I’m not sure, but The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine will probably have to stand as my last word (or rather, last many words) on those questions for the time being.

Practicing the modus ponens of Twitter

Monday, January 29th, 2018

I saw today that Ryan Lackey generously praised my and Zach Weinersmith’s quantum computing SMBC comic on Twitter:

Somehow this SMBC comic is the best explanation of quantum computing for non-professionals that I’ve ever found

To which the venture capitalist Matthew Ocko replied, in another tweet:

Except Scott Aaronson is a surly little troll who has literally never built anything at all of meaning. He’s a professional critic of braver people.  So, no, this is not a good explanation – anymore than Jeremy Rifkin on CRISPR would be… 🙄

Now, I don’t mind if Ocko hates me, and also hates my and Zach’s comic.  What’s been bothering me is just the logic of his tweet.  Like: what did he have in his head when he wrote the word “So”?  Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that I’m a “surly little troll,” and an ax murderer besides.  How does it follow that my explanation of quantum computing wasn’t good?  To reach that stop in proposition-space, wouldn’t one still need to point to something wrong with the explanation?

But I’m certain that my inability to understand this is just another of my many failings.  In a world where Trump is president, bitcoin is valued at $11,000 when I last checked, and the attack-tweet has fully replaced the argument, it’s obvious that those of us who see a word like “so” or “because,” and start looking for the inferential step, are merely insufficiently brave.  For godsakes, I’m not even on Twitter!  I’m a sclerotic dinosaur who needs to get with the times.

But maybe I, too, could learn the art of the naked ad-hominem.  Let me try: from a Google search, we learn that Ocko is an enthusiastic investor in D-Wave.  Is it possible he’s simply upset that there’s so much excitement right now in experimental quantum computing—including “things of meaning” being built by brave people, at Google and IBM and Rigetti and IonQ and elsewhere—but that virtually none of this involves D-Wave, whose devices remain interesting from various physics and engineering standpoints, but still fail to achieve any clear quantum speedups, just as the professional critics predicted?  Is he upset that the brave system-builders who are racing finally to achieve quantum computational supremacy over the next year, are the ones who actually interacted with academic researchers (sorry: surly little trolls), and listened to what they said?  Who understood, for example, why scaling up to 50+ qubits only made a lot of sense once you had one or two qubits that at least behaved well enough in isolation—which, after years of heroic effort, many of these system-builders now do?

How’d I do?  Was there still too much argument there for the world of 2018?

John Preskill, laziness enabler

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

The purpose of this post is just to call everyone’s attention to a beautiful and accessible new article by John Preskill: Quantum Computing in the NISQ era and beyond.  The article is based on John’s keynote address at the recent “Q2B” (Quantum Computing for Business) conference, which I was unfortunately unable to attend.  Here’s the abstract:

Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum (NISQ) technology will be available in the near future. Quantum computers with 50-100 qubits may be able to perform tasks which surpass the capabilities of today’s classical digital computers, but noise in quantum gates will limit the size of quantum circuits that can be executed reliably. NISQ devices will be useful tools for exploring many-body quantum physics, and may have other useful applications, but the 100-qubit quantum computer will not change the world right away — we should regard it as a significant step toward the more powerful quantum technologies of the future. Quantum technologists should continue to strive for more accurate quantum gates and, eventually, fully fault-tolerant quantum computing.

Did you ever wish you had something even better than a clone: namely, someone who writes exactly what you would’ve wanted to write, on a topic people keep asking you to write about, but ten times better than you would’ve written it?  To all journalists and others who ask me over the coming year about the application potential for near-term quantum computers, I can now simply respond with a link.

Superposition your mouse over these five exciting QC links!

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

(1) My TEDx talk from Dresden, entitled “What Quantum Computing Isn’t,” is finally up on YouTube.  For regular Shtetl-Optimized readers, there’s unlikely to be much that’s new here: it’s basically 15 minutes of my usual spiel, packaged for mass consumption.  But while it went over well with the live audience, right now the only comment on the video is—I quote—“uuuuuuuuuuuuuuu,” from user “imbatman8472.”  So if you feel so inclined, go over there, watch it, and try to start a more contentful discussion!  Thanks so much to Andrés Goens, and everyone else in Dresden, for inviting me there and hosting a great visit.

(2) On December 4-6, there’s going to be a new conference in Mountain View, called Q2B (Quantum Computing for Business).  There, if it interests you, you can hear about the embryonic QC industry, from some of the major players at Google, IBM, Microsoft, academia, and government, as well as some of the QC startups (like IonQ) that have blossomed over the last few years.  Oh yes, and D-Wave.  The keynote speaker will be John Preskill; Google’s John Martinis and IBM’s Jerry Chow will also be giving talks.  I regret that another commitment will prevent me from attending myself, but I hope to attend next year’s iteration.  (Full disclosure: I’m a scientific adviser to QC Ware, the firm that’s organizing the conference.)

(3) On October 24, the House Science Committee heard three hours of testimony—you can watch it all here—about the need for quantum information research and the danger of the US falling behind China.  In what I believe is my first entry in the Congressional record, I’m quoted (for something totally incidental) at 1:09.  John Preskill was mostly just delighted that the witness, Jim Kurose, referred to me as a “physicist.”

(4) For several years, people have been asking me whether Bitcoin is resistant against quantum attack.  Now there’s finally an expert analysis, by Aggarwal et al., that looks into exactly that question.  Two-sentence summary: the proof-of-work is probably fine, although Grover’s algorithm can of course be used against it, which might eventually necessitate adjusting the difficulty parameter to account for that, and/or migrating from a pure preimage search task to collision-finding, where my result with Yaoyun Shi showed that quantum computers offer “only” an n2/3 black-box speedup over classical computers, rather than a square-root speedup.  The scheme for signing the transactions, which is currently based on elliptic curve cryptography, is the real danger point, but again one could address that by migrating to a post-quantum signature scheme.  My main comment about the matter is that, if I’d invested in Bitcoin when I first learned about it, I’d be rich now.

(5) In the first significant victory for my plan to spend a whole sabbatical year just writing up unwritten papers, I’ve got a new paper out today: Shadow Tomography of Quantum States.  Comments extremely welcome!

Grad students and postdocs and faculty sought

Saturday, October 28th, 2017

I’m eagerly seeking PhD students and postdocs to join our Quantum Information Center at UT Austin, starting in Fall 2018.  We’re open to any theoretical aspects of quantum information, although if you wanted to work with me personally, then areas close to computer science would be the closest fit.  I’m also able to supervise PhD students in physics, but am not directly involved with admissions to the physics department: this is a discussion we would have after you were already admitted to UT.

I, along with my theoretical computer science colleagues at UT Austin, am also open to outstanding students and postdocs in classical complexity theory. My wife, Dana Moshkovitz, tells me that she and David Zuckerman in particular are looking for a postdoc in the areas of pseudorandomness and derandomization (and for PhD students as well).

If you want to apply to the UTCS PhD program, please visit here.  The deadline is December 15.  If you specify that you want to work on quantum computing and information, and/or with me, then I’ll be sure to see your application.  Emailing faculty at this stage doesn’t help; we won’t “estimate your chances” or even look at your qualifications until we can see all the applications together.

If you want to apply for a postdoc with me, here’s what to do:

  • Email me introducing yourself (if I don’t already know you), and include your CV, your thesis (if you already have one), and up to 3 representative papers.  Do this even if you already emailed me before.
  • Arrange for two recommendation letters to be emailed to me.

Let’s set a deadline for postdoc applications of, I dunno, December 15?

In addition to the above, I’m happy to announce that the UT CS department is looking to hire a new faculty member in quantum computing and information—most likely a junior person.  The UT physics department is also looking to hire quantum information faculty members, with a focus on a senior-level experimentalist right now.  If you’re interested in these opportunities, just email me; I can put you in touch with the relevant people.

All in all, this is shaping up to be the most exciting era for quantum computing and information in Austin since a group of UT students, postdocs, and faculty including David Deutsch, John Wheeler, Wojciech Zurek, Bill Wootters, and Ben Schumacher laid much of the intellectual foundation of the field in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  We hope you’ll join us.  Hook ’em Hadamards!


Unrelated Announcements: Avi Wigderson has released a remarkable 368-page book, Mathematics and Computation, for free on the web.  This document surveys pretty much the entire current scope of theoretical computer science, in a way only Avi, our field’s consummate generalist, could do.  It also sets out Avi’s vision for the future and his sociological thoughts about TCS and its interactions with neighboring fields.  I was a reviewer on the manuscript, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a panoramic view of TCS.

In other news, my UT friend and colleague Adam Klivans, and his student Surbhi Goel, have put out a preprint entitled Learning Depth-Three Neural Networks in Polynomial Time.  (Beware: what the machine learning community calls “depth three,” is what the TCS community would call “depth two.”)  This paper learns real-valued neural networks in the so-called p-concept model of Kearns and Schapire, and thereby evades a 2006 impossibility theorem of Klivans and Sherstov, which showed that efficiently learning depth-2 threshold circuits would require breaking cryptographic assumptions.  More broadly, there’s been a surge of work in the past couple years on explaining the success of deep learning methods (methods whose most recent high-profile victory was, of course, AlphaGo Zero).  I’m really hoping to learn more about this direction during my sabbatical this year—though I’ll try and take care not to become another deep learning zombie, chanting “artificial BRAINSSSS…” with outstretched arms.