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

One thought on “John Preskill and the dawn of the entanglement frontier

  1. Thanks, Daniel. I miss those discussions. It may be that I seemed like an expert a few days later because of what you taught me a few days before. Let’s do it again soon!

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