Archive for November, 2019

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

Tuesday, November 26th, 2019

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

Archimedes’ other principle and quantum supremacy

by Greg Kuperberg

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

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

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

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

Archimedes’ theorem

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

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

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

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

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

Sýkora’s generalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another proof, and quantum supremacy

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

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

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

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

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

The Aaronson-Ambainis Conjecture (2008-2019)

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations to Nathan and Ohad!

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

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

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

Annual recruitment post

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

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

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

So without further ado:

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

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

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

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

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

Hook ’em Hadamards!

The morality of quantum computing

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

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

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

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

Dear Richard,

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

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

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

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

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

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