A crash course on the math of quantum computing (guest post by Dorit Aharonov)

[The post below is by Dorit Aharonov who co-organized the wonderful school on quantum computing last week which I attended and greatly enjoyed. –Boaz]

TL;DR: Last week we had a wonderful one-week intro course into the math of quantum computing at Hebrew U;  It included a one day crash course on the basics, and 7 mini-courses on math-oriented research topics (quantum delegation, Hamiltonian complexity, algorithms and more) by top-notch speakers. Most importantly – it is all online, and could be very useful if you want to take a week or two to enter the area and don’t know where to start.  

Hi Theory people!  

I want to tell you about a 5-days winter school called “The Mathematics of Quantum Computation“, which we (me, Zvika Brakerski, Or Sattath and Amnon Ta-Shma) organized last week at the Institute for advanced studies (IIAS) at the Hebrew university in Jerusalem. 

There were two reasons I happily agreed to Boaz’s suggestion to write a guest blogpost about this school.

a) The school was really great fun. We enjoyed it so much, that I think you might find it interesting to hear about it even if you were not there, or are not even into quantum computation.

And b), it might actually be useful for you or your quantum-curious friends. We put all material online, with the goal in mind that after the school, this collection of talks+written material will constitute all that is needed for an almost self-contained very-intensive-one-week-course of introduction into the mathematical side of quantum computation; I think this might be of real use for any theoretical computer scientist or mathematician interested in entering this fascinating but hard-to-penetrate area, and not knowing where to start.
Before telling you a little more about what we actually learned in this school, let’s start with some names and numbers. We had:  

  • 160 participants (students and faculty) from all over the world. 
  • 7 terrific speakers: Adam Bouland (UC Berkeley), Sergey Bravyi (IBM), Matthias Christandl (Coppenhagen), András Gilyén (Caltech), Sandy Irani (UC Irvine), Avishay Tal (Berkeley), and Thomas Vidick (Caltech); 
  • 2 great TAs:  András Gilyén (Caltech) and Chinmay Nirkhe (UC Berkeley)
  • 4 busy organizers: myself (Hebrew U), Zvika Brakerski (Weizmann), Or Sattath (Ben Gurion U), and Amnon Ta-Shma (Tel Aviv U)
  • 1 exciting and very intensive program
  • 5 challenging and fascinating days of  talksproblem sessions and really nice food.   
  • 1 great Rabin’s lecture by Boaz Barak (Harvard)
  • 1 beautiful Quantum perspective lecture by Sergey Bravyi (IBM)
  • 8 panelists in the supremacy panel we had on the fifth day: Sandy Irani (UC Irvine), our wise moderator, and 7 panelists on stage and online: myself, Scott Aaronson (Austin, online), Boaz Barak, Adam Bouland, Sergio Boixo (Google, online), Gil Kalai (Hebrew U), and Umesh Vazirani (UC Berkeley, online) 
  • 8 brave speakers in the gong show, our very last session, each talking for 3 minutes;    
  • 1 group-tour to 1 UNESCO site (Tel Maresha) and 6 beers tasted by ~80 tour participants
  • 3 problem sets with 43 problems and (!) their solutions.   

So why did we decide to organize this particular quantum school, given the many quantum schools around? Well, the area of quantum computation is just bursting now with excitement and new mathematical challenges; But there seems to be no easy way for theoreticians to learn about all these things unless you are already in the loop… The (admittedly) very ambitious goal of the school was to assume zero background in quantum computation, and quickly bring people up to speed on six or seven of the most interesting mathematical research forefronts in the area. 

The first day of the school was intended to put everyone essentially on the same page: it included four talks about the very basics (qubits by Or Sattath, circuits, by myself, algorithms by Adam Bouland, and error correction by Sergey Bravyi). By the end of this first day everyone was at least supposed to be familiar with the basic concepts, and capable of listening to the mini-courses to follow. The rest of the school was devoted mainly to those mini-courses, whose topics included what I think are some of the most exciting topics on the more theoretical and mathematical side of quantum computation.

Yes, it was extremely challenging… the good thing was that we had two great TAs, András and Chinmay, who helped prepare problem sets, which people actually seriously tried to solve (!) during the daily one+ hour TA problem-solving sessions (with the help of the team strolling around ready to answer questions…). It seems that this indeed helped people follow, despite the fact that we did get into some hard stuff in those mini-courses… The many questions that were asked throughout the school proved that many people were following and interested till the bitter end. 

So here is a summary of the mini-courses, by order of appearance. 
I added some buzz words of interesting related mathematical notions so that you know where these topics might lead you if you take the paths they suggest.   

  •  Thomas Vidick gave a three-lecture wonderfully clear mini-course providing an intro to the recently very active and exciting area of quantum verification and delegation, connecting cryptography and quantum computational complexity. [Thomas didn’t have time to talk about it, but down the road this eventually connects to  approximate representation theory, as well as to Connes embedding conjecture, and more.]
  •  Sandy Irani gave a beautiful exposition (again, in a a three lecture mini-course) on quantum Hamiltonian complexity. Sandy started with Kitaev’s quantum version of the Cook Levin theorem, showing that the local Hamiltonian problem is quantum NP complete; she then explained how this can be extended to more physically relevant questions such as translationally invariant 1D systems, questions about the thermodynamical limit, and more. [This topic is related to open questions such as quantum PCP, which was not mentioned in the school, as well as to beautiful recent results about undecidability of the spectral gap problem, and more.]    
  •  Matthias Christandl gave an exciting two-lecture mini-course on the fascinating connection between tensor ranks and matrix product multiplication. Starting from what seemed to be childish games with small pictures in his first talk, he cleverly used those as his building blocks in his second talk, to enable him to talk about Strassen’s universal spectral points program for approaching the complexity of matrix multiplication, asymptotic ranks, border ranks and more. That included also very beautiful pictures of polytopes! Matthias explained the connection that underlines this entire direction, between entanglement properties of three body systems, with these old combinatorial problems.  
  •  Avishay Tal gave a really nice two-lecture exposition on his recent breakthrough result with Ran Raz, proving that quantum polynomial time computation is not contained in the polynomial Hierarchy, in the oracle model. This included talking about AC0, a problem called forrelation, Fourier expansion, Gaussians and much more.
  •   András Gilyén gave a wonderful talk about a recent development: the evolution of the singular value approach to quantum algorithms. He left us all in awe showing that essentially almost any quantum algorithm you can think of falls into this beautiful framework… Among other things, he mentioned Chebychev’s polynomials, quantum walks, Hamiltonian simulations, and more. What else can be done with this framework remains to be seen.
  • Sergey Bravyi gave two talks (on top of his intro to quantum error correction). The first was as part of a monthly series at Hebrew university, called  “quantum perspectives”; in this talk, Sergey gave a really nice exposition of his breakthrough result (with Gosset and Konig) demonstrating an information theoretical separation between quantum and classical constant depth circuits; this uses in a clever way the well known quantum magic square game enabling quantum correlations to win with probability one, while classical correlations are always bounded away from one;  somehow this result manages to cleverly turn this game into a computational advantage. In Sergey’s last talk, he gave the basics of the beautiful topic of stoqaustic Hamiltonians –  a model in between quantum Hamiltonians and classical constrained satisfaction problems, which poses many fundamental and interesting open questions (and is tightly related to classical Markov chains, and Markov chain Monte Carlo). 
  • Finally, Adam Bouland gave two superb talks on quantum supremacy, explaining the beautiful challenges in this area – including his recent average case to worst case hardness results about sampling using quantum circuits, which is related to Google’s supremacy experiment.  
  • Ah, I also gave a talk – it was about three of the many different equivalent models of quantum computation – adiabatic computation, quantum walks, and the Jones polynomial (I also briefly mentioned a differential geometry model). The talk came out way too disordered in my mind (never give a talk when you are an organizer!), but hopefully it gave some picture about the immense variety of ways to think about quantum computation and quantum algorithms.

In addition to the main lectures, we also had some special events intertwined: 

  • Boaz Barak gave the distinguished annual Rabin lecture, joint with the CS colloquium; His talk, which was given the intriguing title  “Quantum computing and classical algorithms: The best of frenemies”, focused on the fickle relationships between quantum and classical algorithms. The main players in this beautiful talk were SDPs and sums of squares, and it left us with many open questions.     
  • Last but not least, we had an international panel about the meaning of Google’s recent experiment claiming supremacy, joined by Sergio Boixo from Google explaining the experiment, as well as Scott Aaronson and Umesh Vazirani who woke up very early in the US to join us. I feared we would have some friction and fist fights, but this actually became a deep and interesting discussion! We went with quite some depth into the most important question in my mind about the supremacy experiment, which is the issue of noise; Unbelievably, it all went well even from the technological aspect! I really recommend watching this discussion

So, we had a great time…. and as I said, one of the best things is that it is all recorded and saved. You are welcome to follow the program, watch the recorded talks, consult the slides, lecture notes, exercises and solutions and also read the reading material if you want to extend your knowledge beyond what is covered in the school. In case you know of any math or TCS-oriented person who wants to enter the field and start working on some problem at the forefront of research, just send him or her this post, or the link of the school’s website;  It will take a very intensive week (well, maybe two) of following lectures and doing the exercises, but by the end of that time, one is guaranteed to be no longer a complete amateur to the area, as the set of topics covered gives a pretty good picture of what is going on in the field.   

Last but not least, I would like to thank the Israeli quantum initiative, Vatat, and the IIAS, for their generous funding which enabled this school and the funding of students; the IIAS team for their immense help in organization;   and of course, thanks a lot to all participants who attended the school!

Wishing everyone a very happy year of 2020,  


6 thoughts on “A crash course on the math of quantum computing (guest post by Dorit Aharonov)

  1. I also agree with Dorit that the debate was successful. Clearly, there is a large amount of uncertainty both regarding the general endeavor of quantum computing and regarding Google’s recent claim. However, the disagreements (even when the gap looks wide) are technical in nature and we all agree (I think) about the importance of understanding these matters. Also looking back on the various arguments that were made, I did not find a single claim that was maid in the debate (and my earlier presentation), including claims I disagree with, that did not have some merit or that cannot lead to an interesting scientific discussion.

    1. I completely agree Gil!

      In particular the questions you raise are very interesting independently of this particular experiment as they focus attention on the hugely important task of understanding the right noise models for quantum devices.

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