John Preskill and the dawn of the entanglement frontier

Editor’s Note: John Preskill’s recent election to the National Academy of Sciences generated a lot of enthusiasm among his colleagues and students. In an earlier post today, famed Stanford theoretical physicist, Leonard Susskind, paid tribute to John’s early contributions to physics ranging from magnetic monopoles to the quantum mechanics of black holes. In this post, Daniel Gottesman, a faculty member at the Perimeter Institute, takes us back to the formative years of the Institute for Quantum Information at Caltech, the precursor to IQIM and a world-renowned incubator for quantum information and quantum computation research. Though John shies away from the spotlight, we, at IQIM, believe that the integrity of his character and his role as a mentor and catalyst for science are worthy of attention and set a good example for current and future generations of theoretical physicists.

Preskill's legacy may well be the incredible number of preeminent research scientists in quantum physics he has mentored throughout his extraordinary career.

Preskill’s legacy may well be the incredible number of preeminent research scientists in quantum physics he has mentored throughout his extraordinary career.

When someone wins a big award, it has become traditional on this blog for John Preskill to write something about them. The system breaks down, though, when John is the one winning the award. Therefore I’ve been brought in as a pinch hitter (or should it be pinch lionizer?).

The award in this case is that John has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, along with Charlie Kane and a number of other people that don’t work on quantum information. Lenny Susskind has already written about John’s work on other topics; I will focus on quantum information.

On the research side of quantum information, John is probably best known for his work on fault-tolerant quantum computation, particularly topological fault tolerance. John jumped into the field of quantum computation in 1994 in the wake of Shor’s algorithm, and brought me and some of his other grad students with him. It was obvious from the start that error correction was an important theoretical challenge (emphasized, for instance, by Unruh), so that was one of the things we looked at. We couldn’t figure out how to do it, but some other people did. John and I embarked on a long drawn-out project to get good bounds on the threshold error rate. If you can build a quantum computer with an error rate below the threshold value, you can do arbitrarily large quantum computations. If not, then errors will eventually overwhelm you. Early versions of my project with John suggested that the threshold should be about 10^{-4}, and the number began floating around (somewhat embarrassingly) as the definitive word on the threshold value. Our attempts to bound the higher-order terms in the computation became rather grotesque, and the project proceeded very slowly until a new approach and the recruitment of Panos Aliferis finally let us finish a paper with a rigorous proof of a slightly lower threshold value.

Meanwhile, John had also been working on topological quantum computation. John has already written about his excitement when Kitaev visited Caltech and talked about the toric code. The two of them, plus Eric Dennis and Andrew Landahl, studied the application of this code for fault tolerance. If you look at the citations of this paper over time, it looks rather … exponential. For a while, topological things were too exotic for most quantum computer people, but over time, the virtues of surface codes have become obvious (apparently high threshold, convenient for two-dimensional architectures). It’s become one of the hot topics in recent years and there are no signs of flagging interest in the community.

John has also made some important contributions to security proofs for quantum key distribution, known to the cognoscenti just by its initials. QKD allows two people (almost invariably named Alice and Bob) to establish a secret key by sending qubits over an insecure channel. If the eavesdropper Eve tries to live up to her name, her measurements of the qubits being transmitted will cause errors revealing her presence. If Alice and Bob don’t detect the presence of Eve, they conclude that she is not listening in (or at any rate hasn’t learned much about the secret key) and therefore they can be confident of security when they later use the secret key to encrypt a secret message. With Peter Shor, John gave a security proof of the best-known QKD protocol, known as the “Shor-Preskill” proof. Sometimes we scientists lack originality in naming. It was not the first proof of security, but earlier ones were rather complicated. The Shor-Preskill proof was conceptually much clearer and made a beautiful connection between the properties of quantum error-correcting codes and QKD. The techniques introduced in their paper got adopted into much later work on quantum cryptography.

Collaborating with John is always an interesting experience. Sometimes we’ll discuss some idea or some topic and it will be clear that John does not understand the idea clearly or knows little about the topic. Then, a few days later we discuss the same subject again and John is an expert, or at least he knows a lot more than me. I guess this ability to master
topics quickly is why he was always able to answer Steve Flammia’s random questions after lunch. And then when it comes time to write the paper … John will do it. It’s not just that he will volunteer to write the first draft — he keeps control of the whole paper and generally won’t let you edit the source, although of course he will incorporate your comments. I think this habit started because of incompatibilities between the TeX editor he was using and any other program, but he maintains it (I believe) to make sure that the paper meets his high standards of presentation quality.

This also explains why John has been so successful as an expositor. His
lecture notes for the quantum computation class at Caltech are well-known. Despite being incomplete and not available on Amazon, they are probably almost as widely read as the standard textbook by Nielsen and Chuang.

Before IQIM, there was IQI, and before that was QUIC.

Before IQIM, there was IQI, and before that was QUIC.

He apparently is also good at writing grants. Under his leadership and Jeff Kimble’s, Caltech has become one of the top places for quantum computation. In my last year of graduate school, John and Jeff, along with Steve Koonin, secured the QUIC grant, and all of a sudden Caltech had money for quantum computation. I got a research assistantship and could write my thesis without having to worry about TAing. Postdocs started to come — first Chris Fuchs, then a long stream of illustrious others. The QUIC grant grew into IQI, and that eventually sprouted an M and drew in even more people. When I was a student, John’s group was located in Lauritsen with the particle theory group. We had maybe three grad student offices (and not all the students were working on quantum information), plus John’s office. As the Caltech quantum effort grew, IQI acquired territory in another building, then another, and then moved into a good chunk of the new Annenberg building. Without John’s efforts, the quantum computing program at Caltech would certainly be much smaller and maybe completely lacking a theory side. It’s also unlikely this blog would exist.

The National Academy has now elected John a member, probably more for his research than his twitter account (@preskill), though I suppose you never know. Anyway, congratulations, John!

-D. Gottesman

Of magnetic monopoles and fast-scrambling black holes

Editor’s Note: On April 29th, 2014, the National Academy of Sciences announced the new electees to the prestigious organization. This was an especially happy occasion for everyone here at IQIM, since the new members included our very own John Preskill, Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics and regular blogger on this site. A request was sent to Leonard Susskind, a close friend and collaborator of John’s, to take a trip down memory lane and give the rest of us a glimpse of some of John’s early contributions to Physics. John, congratulations from all of us here at IQIM.

Preskill-John_7950_WebJohn Preskill was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an event long overdue. Perhaps it took longer than it should have because there is no way to pigeon-hole him; he is a theoretical physicist, and that’s all there is to it.

John has long been one of my heroes in theoretical physics. There is something very special about his work. It has exceptional clarity, it has vision, it has integrity—you can count on it. And sometimes it has another property: it can surprise. The first time I heard his name come up, sometime around 1979, I was not only surprised; I was dismayed. A student whose name I had never heard of, had uncovered a serious clash between two things, both of which I deeply wanted to believe in. One was the Big-Bang theory and the other was the discovery of grand unified particle theories. Unification led to the extraordinary prediction that Dirac’s magnetic monopoles must exist, at least in principle. The Big-Bang theory said they must exist in fact. The extreme conditions at the beginning of the universe were exactly what was needed to create loads of monopoles; so many that they would flood the universe with too much mass. John, the unknown graduate student, did a masterful analysis. It left no doubt that something had to give. Cosmology gave. About a year later, inflationary cosmology was discovered by Guth who was in part motivated by Preskill’s monopole puzzle.

John’s subsequent career as a particle physicist was marked by a number of important insights which often had that surprising quality. The cosmology of the invisible axion was one. Others had to do with very subtle and counterintuitive features of quantum field theory, like the existence of “Alice strings”. In the very distant past, Roger Penrose and I had a peculiar conversation about possible generalizations of the Aharonov-Bohm effect. We speculated on all sorts of things that might happen when something is transported around a string. I think it was Roger who got excited about the possibilities that might result if a topological defect could change gender. Alice strings were not quite that exotic, only electric charge flips, but nevertheless it was very surprising.

John of course had a long standing interest in the quantum mechanics of black holes: I will quote a passage from a visionary 1992 review paper, “Do Black Holes Destroy Information?

“I conclude that the information loss paradox may well presage a revolution in fundamental physics.”

At that time no one knew the answer to the paradox, although a few of us, including John, thought the answer was that information could not be lost. But almost no one saw the future as clearly as John did. Our paths crossed in 1993 in a very exciting discussion about black holes and information. We were both thinking about the same thing, now called black hole complementarity. We were concerned about quantum cloning if information is carried by Hawking radiation. We thought we knew the answer: it takes too long to retrieve the information to then be able to jump into the black hole and discover the clone. This is probably true, but at that time we had no idea how close a call this might be.

It took until 2007 to properly formulate the problem. Patrick Hayden and John Preskill utterly surprised me, and probably everyone else who had been thinking about black holes, with their now-famous paper “Black Holes as Mirrors.” In a sense, this paper started a revolution in applying the powerful methods of quantum information theory to black holes.

We live in the age of entanglement. From quantum computing to condensed matter theory, to quantum gravity, entanglement is the new watchword. Preskill was in the vanguard of this revolution, but he was also the teacher who made the new concepts available to physicists like myself. We can now speak about entanglement, error correction, fault tolerance, tensor networks and more. The Preskill lectures were the indispensable source of knowledge and insight for us.

Congratulations John. And congratulations NAS.

-L. S.

Entanglement = Wormholes

One of the most enjoyable and inspiring physics papers I have read in recent years is this one by Mark Van Raamsdonk. Building on earlier observations by Maldacena and by Ryu and Takayanagi. Van Raamsdonk proposed that quantum entanglement is the fundamental ingredient underlying spacetime geometry.* Since my first encounter with this provocative paper, I have often mused that it might be a Good Thing for someone to take Van Raamsdonk’s idea really seriously.

Now someone has.

I love wormholes. (Who doesn’t?) Picture two balls, one here on earth, the other in the Andromeda galaxy. It’s a long trip from one ball to the other on the background space, but there’s a shortcut:You can walk into the ball on earth and moments later walk out of the ball in Andromeda. That’s a wormhole.

I’ve mentioned before that John Wheeler was one of my heros during my formative years. Back in the 1950s, Wheeler held a passionate belief that “everything is geometry,” and one particularly intriguing idea he called “charge without charge.” There are no pointlike electric charges, Wheeler proclaimed; rather, electric field lines can thread the mouth of a wormhole. What looks to you like an electron is actually a tiny wormhole mouth. If you were small enough, you could dive inside the electron and emerge from a positron far away. In my undergraduate daydreams, I wished this idea could be true.

But later I found out more about wormholes, and learned about “topological censorship.” It turns out that if energy is nonnegative, Einstein’s gravitational field equations prevent you from traversing a wormhole — the throat always pinches off (or becomes infinitely long) before you get to the other side. It has sometimes been suggested that quantum effects might help to hold the throat open (which sounds like a good idea for a movie), but today we’ll assume that wormholes are never traversable no matter what you do.

Alice and Bob are in different galaxies, but each lives near a black hole, and their black holes are connected by a wormhole.

Love in a wormhole throat: Alice and Bob are in different galaxies, but each lives near a black hole, and their black holes are connected by a wormhole. If both jump into their black holes, they can enjoy each other’s company for a while before meeting a tragic end.

Are wormholes any fun if we can never traverse them? The answer might be yes if two black holes are connected by a wormhole. Then Alice on earth and Bob in Andromeda can get together quickly if each jumps into a nearby black hole. For solar mass black holes Alice and Bob will have only 10 microseconds to get acquainted before meeting their doom at the singularity. But if the black holes are big enough, Alice and Bob might have a fulfilling relationship before their tragic end.

This observation is exploited in a recent paper by Juan Maldacena and Lenny Susskind (MS) in which they reconsider the AMPS puzzle (named for Almheiri, Marolf, Polchinski, and Sully). I wrote about this puzzle before, so I won’t go through the whole story again. Here’s the short version: while classical correlations can easily be shared by many parties, quantum correlations are harder to share. If Bob is highly entangled with Alice, that limits his ability to entangle with Carrie, and if he entangles with Carrie instead he can’t entangle with Alice. Hence we say that entanglement is “monogamous.” Now, if, as most of us are inclined to believe, information is “scrambled” but not destroyed by an evaporating black hole, then the radiation emitted by an old black hole today should be highly entangled with radiation emitted a long time ago. And if, as most of us are inclined to believe, nothing unusual happens (at least not right away) to an observer who crosses the event horizon of a black hole, then the radiation emitted today should be highly entangled with stuff that is still inside the black hole. But we can’t have it both ways without violating the monogamy of entanglement!

The AMPS puzzle invites audacious reponses, and AMPS were suitably audacious. They proposed that an old black hole has no interior — a freely falling observer meets her doom right at the horizon rather than at a singularity deep inside.

MS are also audacious, but in a different way. They helpfully summarize their key point succinctly in a simple equation:

ER = EPR

Here, EPR means Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen, whose famous paper highlighted the weirdness of quantum correlations, while ER means Einstein-Rosen (sorry, Podolsky), who discovered wormhole solutions to the Einstein equations. (Both papers were published in 1935.) MS (taking Van Raamsdonk very seriously) propose that whenever any two quantum subsystems are entangled they are connected by a wormhole. In many cases, these wormholes are highly quantum mechanical, but in some cases (where the quantum system under consideration has a weakly coupled “gravitational dual”), the wormhole can have a smooth geometry like the one ER described. That wormholes are not traversable is important for the consistency of ER = EPR: just as Alice cannot use their shared entanglement to send a message to Bob instantaneously, so she is unable to send Bob a message through their shared wormhole.

AMPS imagined that Alice could distill qubit C from the black hole’s early radiation and carry it back to the black hole, successfully verifying its entanglement with another qubit B distilled from the recent radiation. Monogamy then ensures that qubit B cannot be entangled with qubit A behind the horizon. Hence when Alice falls through the horizon she will not observe the quiescent vacuum state in which A and B are entangled; instead she encounters a high-energy particle. MS agree with this conclusion.

AMPS go on to say that Alice’s actions before entering the black hole could not have created that energetic particle; it must have been there all along, one of many such particles constituting a seething firewall.

Here MS disagree. They argue that the excitation encountered by Alice as she crosses the horizon was actually created by Alice herself when she interacted with qubit C. How could Alice’s actions, executed far, far away from the black hole, dramatically affect the state of the black hole’s interior? Because C and A are connected by a wormhole!

The ER = EPR conjecture seems to allow us to view the early radiation with which the black hole is entangled as a complementary description of the black hole interior. It’s not clear yet whether this picture works in detail, and even if it does there could still be firewalls; maybe in some sense the early radiation is connected to the black hole via a wormhole, yet this wormhole is wildly fluctuating rather than a smooth geometry. Still, MS provide a promising new perspective on a deep problem.

As physicists we often rely on our sense of smell in judging scientific ideas, and earlier proposed resolutions of the AMPS puzzle (like firewalls) did not smell right. At first whiff, ER = EPR may smell fresh and sweet, but it will have to ripen on the shelf for a while. If this idea is on the right track, there should be much more to say about it. For now, wormhole lovers can relish the possibilities.

Eventually, Wheeler discarded “everything is geometry” in favor of an ostensibly deeper idea: “everything is information.” It would be a fitting vindication of Wheeler’s vision if everything in the universe, including wormholes, is made of quantum correlations.

*Update: Commenter JM reminded me to mention Brian Swingle’s beautiful 2009 paper, which preceded Van Raamsdonk’s and proposed a far-reaching connection between quantum entanglement and spacetime geometry.

A Public Lecture on Quantum Information

Sooner or later, most scientists are asked to deliver a public lecture about their research specialties. When successful, lecturing about science to the lay public can give one a feeling of deep satisfaction. But preparing the lecture is a lot of work!

Caltech sponsors the Earnest C. Watson lecture series (named after the same Earnest Watson mentioned in my post about Jane Werner Watson), which attracts very enthusiastic audiences to Beckman Auditorium nine times a year. I gave a Watson lecture on April 3 about Quantum Entanglement and Quantum Computing, which is now available from iTunes U and also on YouTube:

I did a Watson lecture once before, in 1997. That occasion precipitated some big changes in my presentation style. To prepare for the lecture, I acquired my first laptop computer and learned to use PowerPoint. This was still the era when a typical physics talk was handwritten on transparencies and displayed using an overhead projector, so I was sort of a pioneer. And I had many anxious moments in the late 1990s worrying about whether my laptop would be able to communicate with the projector — that can still be a problem even today, but was a more common problem then.

I invested an enormous amount of time in preparing that 1997 lecture, an investment still yielding dividends today. Aside from figuring out what computer to buy (an IBM ThinkPad) and how to do animation in PowerPoint, I also learned to draw using Adobe Illustrator under the tutelage of Caltech’s digital media expert Wayne Waller. And apart from all that technical preparation, I had to figure out the content of the lecture!

That was when I first decided to represent a qubit as a box with two doors, which contains a ball that can be either red or green, and I still use some of the drawings I made then.

Entanglement, illustrated with balls in boxes.

Entanglement, illustrated with balls in boxes.

This choice of colors was unfortunate, because people with red-green color blindness cannot tell the difference. I still feel bad about that, but I don’t have editable versions of the drawings anymore, so fixing it would be a big job …

I also asked my nephew Ben Preskill (then 10 years old, now a math PhD candidate at UC Berkeley), to make a drawing for me illustrating weirdness.

The desire to put weirdness to work has driven the emergence of quantum information science.

The desire to put weirdness to work has driven the emergence of quantum information science.

I still use that, for sentimental reasons, even though it would be easier to update.

The turnout at the lecture was gratifying (you can’t really see the audience with the spotlight shining in your eyes, but I sensed that the main floor of the Auditorium was mostly full), and I have gotten a lot of positive feedback (including from the people who came up to ask questions afterward — we might have been there all night if the audio-visual staff had not forced us to go home).

I did make a few decisions about which I have had second thoughts. I was told I had the option of giving a 45 minute talk with a public question period following, or a 55 minute talk with only a private question period, and I opted for the longer talk. Maybe I should have pushed back and insisted on allowing some public questions even after the longer talk — I like answering questions. And I was told that I should stay in the spotlight, to ensure good video quality, so I decided to stand behind the podium the whole time to curb my tendency to pace across the stage. But maybe I would have seemed more dynamic if I had done some pacing.

I got some gentle criticism from my wife, Roberta, who suggested I could modulate my voice more. I have heard that before, particularly in teaching evaluations that complain about my “soporific” tone. I recall that Mike Freedman once commented after watching a video of a public lecture I did at the KITP in Santa Barbara — he praised its professionalism and “newscaster quality”. But that cuts two ways, doesn’t it? Paul Ginsparg listened to a podcast of that same lecture while doing yardwork, and then sent me a compliment by email, with a characteristic Ginspargian twist. Noting that my sentences were clear, precise, and grammatical, Paul asked: “is this something that just came naturally at some early age, or something that you were able to acquire at some later stage by conscious design (perhaps out of necessity, talks on quantum computing might not go over as well without the reassuring smoothness)?”

Another criticism stung more. To illustrate the monogamy of entanglement, I used a slide describing the frustration of Bob, who wants to entangle with both Alice and Carrie, but finds that he can increase his entanglement with Carrie only my sacrificing some of his entanglement with Alice.

Entanglement is monogamous. Bob is frustrated to find that he cannot be fully entangled with both Alice and Carrie.

Entanglement is monogamous. Bob is frustrated to find that he cannot be fully entangled with both Alice and Carrie.

This got a big laugh. But I used the same slide in a talk at the APS Denver meeting the following week (at a session celebrating the 100th anniversary of Niels Bohr’s atomic model), and a young woman came up to me after that talk to complain. She suggested that my monogamy metaphor was offensive and might discourage women from entering the field!

After discussing the issue with Roberta, I decided to address the problem by swapping the gender roles. The next day, during the question period following Stephen Hawking’s Public Lecture, I spoke about Betty’s frustration over her inability to entangle fully with both Adam and Charlie. But is that really an improvement, or does it reflect negatively on Betty’s morals? I would appreciate advice about this quandary in the comments.

In case you watch the video, there are a couple of things you should know. First, in his introduction, Tom Soifer quotes from a poem about me, but neglects to name the poet. It is former Caltech postdoc Patrick Hayden. And second, toward the end of the lecture I talk about some IQIM outreach activities, but neglect to name our Outreach Director Spiros Michalakis, without whose visionary leadership these things would not have happened.

The most touching feedback I received came from my Caltech colleague Oskar Painter. I joked in the lecture about how mild mannered IQIM scientists can unleash the superpower of quantum information at a moment’s notice.

Mild mannered professor unleashes the super power of quantum information.

Mild mannered professor unleashes the superpower of quantum information.

After watching the video, Oskar shot me an email:

“I sent a link to my son [Ewan, age 11] and daughter [Quinn, age 9], and they each watched it from beginning to end on their iPads, without interruption.  Afterwards, they had a huge number of questions for me, and were dreaming of all sorts of “quantum super powers” they imagined for the future.”

Jeff Kimble stands tall

Jeff Kimble played college basketball. I conjecture that he is more than two meters tall, though being a theorist I have never measured him. Jeff certainly stands tall in the Pantheon of outstanding physicists, and we at Quantum Frontiers were thrilled to hear that Jeff has received the 2013 Herbert Walther Award, which is very well deserved.

About four years ago, Jeff gave a public lecture at Caltech about “The Quantum Internet,” and I had the honor of introducing him. The video of Jeff’s lecture and my introduction are available for free at iTunes U, or by clicking on the embedded video below. You’ll have to watch the video to hear all the Buddy Holly references in my introduction (Jeff and Buddy come from the same county in Texas). Jeff’s lecture was memorable, too, featuring a dance performance by his research group.


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Is Alice burning? The black hole firewall controversy

Quantum correlations are monogamous. Bob can be highly entangled with Alice or with Carrie, but not both.

Quantum correlations are monogamous. Bob can be highly entangled with Alice or with Carrie, but not both.

Back in the early 1990s, I was very interested in the quantum physics of black holes and devoted much of my research effort to thinking about how black holes process quantum information. That effort may have prepared me to appreciate Peter Shor’s spectacular breakthrough — the discovery of a quantum algorithm for factoring intergers efficiently. I told the story here of how I secretly struggled to understand Shor’s algorithm while attending a workshop on black holes in 1994.

Since the mid-1990s, quantum information has been the main focus of my research. I hope that some of the work I’ve done can help to hasten the onset of a new era in which quantum computers are used routinely to perform super-classical tasks. But I have always had another motivation for working on quantum information science — a conviction that insights gained by thinking about quantum computation can illuminate deep issues in other areas of physics, especially quantum condensed matter and quantum gravity. In recent years quantum information concepts have begun penetrating into other fields, and I expect that trend to continue.
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How to build a teleportation machine: Intro to qubits

A match made in heaven.

If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer was obvious to my 12-year-old self — of course it made a sound. More specifically, something ranging from a thud to a thump. There doesn’t need to be an animal present for the tree to jiggle air molecules. Classical physics for the win! Around the same time I was exposed to this thought experiment, I read Michael Crichton’s Timeline. The premise is simple, but not necessarily feasible: archeologists use ‘quantum technology’ (many-worlds interpretation and quantum teleportation) to travel to the Dordogne region of France in the mid 1300s. Blood, guts, action, drama, and plot twists ensue. I haven’t returned to this book since I was thirteen, so I’m guaranteed to have the plot wrong, but for better or worse, I credit this book with planting the seeds of a misconception about what ‘quantum teleportation’ actually entails. This is the first of a multi-part post which will introduce readers to the one-and-only way we know of how teleportation works.
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