Introducing a new game: Quantum TiqTaqToe

A passing conversation with my supervisor

Video games have been a part of my life for about as long as I can remember. From Paperboy and The Last Ninja on the Commodore 64 when I was barely old enough to operate a keyboard, to Mario Kart 8 and Zelda on the Nintendo Switch, as a postdoc at Caltech, working on quantum computing and condensed matter physics. Up until recently, I have kept my two lives separate: my love of video games and my career in quantum physics.

The realization that I could combine quantum physics with games came during an entertaining discussion with my current supervisor, Gil Refael. Gil and I were brainstorming approaches to develop a quantum version of Tetris. Instead of stopping and laughing it off, or even keeping the idea on the horizon, Gil suggested that we talk to Spyridon (Spiros) Michalakis for some guidance. 

This is not the story of Quantum Tetris (yet), but rather the story of how we made a quantum version of a much older, and possibly more universally known game. This is a new game that Spiros and myself have been testing at elementary schools.

And so I am super excited to be able to finally present to you: Quantum TiqTaqToe! As of right now, the app is available both for Android devices and iPhone/iPad:

Get it on Google Play

 

Previous quantum games

Gil and I knew that Spiros had been involved in prior quantum games (most notably qCraft and Quantum Chess), so he seemed like the perfect contact point. He was conveniently located on the same campus, and even in the same department. But more importantly, he was curious about the idea and eager to talk. 

After introducing the idea of Quantum Tetris, Spiros came up with an alternative approach. Seeing as this was going to be my first attempt at creating a video game, not to mention building a game from the ground up with quantum physics, he proposed to put me in touch with Chris Cantwell and help him improve the AI for Quantum Chess.

I thought long and hard about this proposition. Like five seconds. It was an amazing opportunity. I would get to look under the hood of a working and incredibly sophisticated video game, unlike any game ever made: the only game in the world I knew of that was truly based on quantum physics. And I would be solving a critical problem that I would have to deal with eventually, by adapting a conventional, classical rules-based game AI for quantum. 

Fun and Games

My first focus was to jump on Quantum Chess full-force, with the aim of helping Chris implement a new AI player for the game. After evaluating some possible chess-playing AI engines, including state-of-the-art players based off of Google’s AlphaZero, we landed on Stockfish as our best candidate for integration. The AI is currently hot-swappable though, so users can try to develop their own! 

While some of the work for implementing the AI could be done directly using Chris’s C++ implementation of Quantum Chess, other aspects of the work required me to learn the program he had used to develop the user interface. That program is called Unity. Unity is a free game development program that I would highly recommend trying out and playing around with. 

This experience was essential to the birth of Quantum TiqTaqToe. In my quest to understand Unity and Quantum Games, I set out to implement a “simple” game to get a handle on how all the different game components worked together. Having a game based on quantum mechanics is one thing; making sure it is fun to play requires an entirely different skill set.

Perspective

Classic Tic-Tac-Toe is a game in which two players, called X and O, take turns in placing their symbols on a 3×3 grid. The first player to get 3 of their symbols in a line (diagonally, vertically or horizontally) wins. The game goes as far back as ancient Egypt, and evidence of the game has been found on roof tiles dating to 1300 BC [1].

Many variations of the game have existed across many cultures. The first print reference to a game called “tick-tack-toe” was in 1884. In the US the game was renamed “tic-tac-toe” sometime in the 20th century. Here’s a random fun fact: in Dutch, the game is most often referred to as “Butter-Cheese-and-Eggs” [2]. In 1952, computer scientist Alexander S. Douglas at the University of Cambridge turned it into one of the first computer games, featuring an AI player that could play perfect games against a human opponent.

Combinatorics has determined that whoever plays first will win 91 out of 138 possible board combinations. The second player will win in 44 boards. However, if both players play optimally, looking ahead through all the possible future outcomes, neither player should ever win and the game always ends in a draw, in one of only 3 board combinations.

In Quantum TiqTaqToe, with the current ruleset, we don’t yet know if a winning strategy exists.

I explicitly refer to the current ruleset because we currently limit the amount of quantumness in the game. We want to make sure the game is fun to play and ‘graspable’ for now. In addition, it turns out there already is a game called Quantum TicTacToe, developed by Allan Goff [3]. That version of TicTacToe has similar concepts but has a different set of rules. 

The Game

A typical game of Quantum TiqTaqToe will look very much like regular Tic-Tac-Toe until one of the players decides to make a quantum move:

A quantum superposition is made by dragging from one empty square to another.

At this point, the game board enters into a superposition. The X is in each position with 50/50 chance; in one universe the X is on the left and in the other it is on the right. Neither player knows how things will play out. And the game only gets more interesting from here. The opponent can choose to place their O in a superposition between an empty square and a square occupied by a quantum X.

A quantum entanglement move.

Et voilà, player O has entangled his fate with his opponent’s. Once the two squares become entangled, the only outcomes are X-O or O-X, each with probability ½. Interestingly, since the game is fully quantum, the phase between the two entangled outcomes can in principle be leveraged to create interesting plays through destructive and constructive interference. The app features a simple tutorial (to be updated) that teaches you these moves and a few others. There are boards that classically result in a draw but are quantumly “winnable”.

A quick note on the quantumness

The squares in TiqTaqToe are all fully quantum. I represent them as qutrits (like qubits, but instead of having states 0 and 1 my qutrits have states 0, 1 and 2), and moves made by the players are unitary operations acting on them. So the game consists of these essential elements:

  1. The squares of the 3×3 grid are turned into qutrits (Empty, X, O). Each move is a unitary gate operation on those qutrits. I’ll leave the details of the math out, but for the case of qubits check out Chris’ detailed writeup on Quantum Chess [4].
  2. Quantum TiqTaqToe allows you to select two squares in the grid, providing you with the option of creating a superposition or an entangled state. For the sake of simplicity (i.e. keeping the game fun to play and ‘graspable’ for now), no more than 3 squares can be involved in a given entangled state.

I chose to explicitly track sets of qutrits that share a Hilbert space. The entire quantum state of the game combines these sets with classical strings of the form “XEEOXEOXE”, indicating that the first square is an X, the second is Empty, etc.

Victory in the multiverse

So, when does the game end if these quantum states are in play? In Quantum TiqTaqToe, the board collapses to a single classical state as soon as it is full (i.e. every square is non-empty). The resulting state is randomly chosen from all the possible outcomes, with a probability that is equal to the (square of the) wave-function amplitude (basic quantum mechanics). If there is a winner after the collapse, the game ends. Otherwise, the game continues until either there is a winner or until there are no more moves to be made (ending in a draw). On top of this, players get the option to forfeit their move for the opportunity to cause a partial collapse of the state, by using the collapse-mode. Future versions may include other ways of collapse, including one that does not involve rolling dice! [5]

Can you beat the quantum AI?

Due to quantum physics and the collapse of the state, the game is inherently statistical. So instead of asking: “Can I beat my opponent in a game of Quantum TiqTaqToe?” one should ask “If I play 100 games against my opponent, can I consistently win more than 50 of them?”

You can test your skill against the in-game quantum AI to see if you’ve indeed mastered Quantum TiqTaqToe yet. At the hardest setting, winning even 30% of the time after, say, 20 games may be extraordinary. The implementation of this AI, by the way, would have been a blog-post by itself. For the curious, I can say it is based on the ExpectiMiniMax algorithm. As of the moment of this writing, the hardest AI setting is not available in the app yet. Keep your eyes out for an update soon though!

The future

Perhaps kids who grow up playing quantum games will acquire a visceral understanding of quantum phenomena that our generation lacks.” – John Preskill, in his recent article [6].

From the get-go, Quantum TiqTaqToe (and Quantum Chess) have had outreach as a core motivation. Perhaps future quantum engineers and quantum programmers will look back on their youth and remember playing Quantum TiqTaqToe as I remember my Commodore 64 games. I am convinced that these small steps into the realm of Quantum Games are only just the beginning of an entirely new genre of fun and useful games.

In the meantime, we are hard at work implementing an Online mode so you can play with your fellow human friends remotely too. This online mode, plus the option of fighting a strong quantum AI, will be unlockable in-game through a small fee (unless you are an educator who wishes to introduce quantum physics in class through this game; those use cases are fee-free courtesy of IQIM and NSF). Each purchase will go towards supporting the future development of exciting new Quantum TiqTaqToe features, as well as other exciting Quantum Games (Tetris, anyone?)

Just in case you missed it: the app is available both for Android devices and iPhone/iPad right now:

Get it on Google Play

 

I really hope you enjoy the game, and perhaps use it to get your friends and family excited about quantum physics. Oh, and start practicing! You never know if the online mode will bring along with it a real Quantum TiqTaqToe Tournament down the road 😉

References

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tic-tac-toe

[2] The origin of this name in Dutch isn’t really certain as far as I know. Alledgedly, it is a left-over from the period in which butter, cheese and eggs were sold at the door (so was milk, but that was done separately since it was sold daily). The salesman had a list with columns for each of these three products, and would jot down a cross or a zero whenever a customer at an address bought or declined a product. Three crosses in a row would earn them praise from the boss. 

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_tic-tac-toe

[4] https://arxiv.org/abs/1906.05836

[5] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/God_does_not_play_dice_with_the_universe

[6] https://arxiv.org/abs/1801.00862

Thermodynamics of quantum channels

You would hardly think that a quantum channel could have any sort of thermodynamic behavior. We were surprised, too.

How do the laws of thermodynamics apply in the quantum regime? Thanks to novel ideas introduced in the context of quantum information, scientists have been able to develop new ways to characterize the thermodynamic behavior of quantum states. If you’re a Quantum Frontiers regular, you have certainly read about these advances in Nicole’s captivating posts on the subject.

Asking the same question for quantum channels, however, turned out to be more challenging than expected. A quantum channel is a way of representing how an input state can change into an output state according to the laws of quantum mechanics. Let’s picture it as a box with an input state and an output state, like so:

channel-01

A computing gate, the building block of quantum computers, is described by a quantum channel. Or, if Alice sends a photon to Bob over an optical fiber, then the whole process is represented by a quantum channel. Thus, by studying quantum channels directly we can derive statements that are valid regardless of the physical platform used to store and process the quantum information—ion traps, superconducting qubits, photonic qubits, NV centers, etc.

We asked the following question: If I’m given a quantum channel, can I transform it into another, different channel by using something like a miniature heat engine? If so, how much work do I need to spend in order to accomplish this task? The answer is tricky because of a few aspects in which quantum channels are more complicated than quantum states.

In this post, I’ll try to give some intuition behind our results, which were developed with the help of Mario Berta and Fernando Brandão, and which were recently published in Physical Review Letters.

First things first, let’s worry about how to study the thermodynamic behavior of miniature systems.

Thermodynamics of small stuff

One of the important ideas that quantum information brought to thermodynamics is the idea of a resource theory. In a resource theory, we declare that there are certain kinds of states that are available for free, and that there are a set of operations that can be carried out for free. In a resource theory of thermodynamics, when we say “for free,” we mean “without expending any thermodynamic work.”

Here, the free states are those in thermal equilibrium at a fixed given temperature, and the free operations are those quantum operations that preserve energy and that introduce no noise into the system (we call those unitary operations). Faced with a task such as transforming one quantum state into another, we may ask whether or not it is possible to do so using the freely available operations. If that is not possible, we may then ask how much thermodynamic work we need to invest, in the form of additional energy at the input, in order to make the transformation possible.

Interestingly, the amount of work needed to go from one state ρ to another state σ might be unrelated to the work required to go back from σ to ρ. Indeed, the freely allowed operations can’t always be reversed; the reverse process usually requires a different sequence of operations, incurring an overhead. There is a mathematical framework to understand these transformations and this reversibility gap, in which generalized entropy measures play a central role. To avoid going down that road, let’s instead consider the macroscopic case in which we have a large number n of independent particles that are all in the same state ρ, a state which we denote by \rho^{\otimes n}. Then something magical happens: This macroscopic state can be reversibly converted to and from another macroscopic state \sigma^{\otimes n}, where all particles are in some other state σ. That is, the work invested in the transformation from \rho^{\otimes n} to \sigma^{\otimes n} can be entirely recovered by performing the reverse transformation:

asympt-interconversion-states-01

If this rings a bell, that is because this is precisely the kind of thermodynamics that you will find in your favorite textbook. There is an optimal, reversible way of transforming any two thermodynamic states into each other, and the optimal work cost of the transformation is the difference of a corresponding quantity known as the thermodynamic potential. Here, the thermodynamic potential is a quantity known as the free energy F(\rho). Therefore, the optimal work cost per copy w of transforming \rho^{\otimes n} into \sigma^{\otimes n} is given by the difference in free energy w = F(\sigma) - F(\rho).

From quantum states to quantum channels

Can we repeat the same story for quantum channels? Suppose that we’re given a channel \mathcal{E}, which we picture as above as a box that transforms an input state into an output state. Using the freely available thermodynamic operations, can we “transform” \mathcal{E} into another channel \mathcal{F}? That is, can we wrap this box with some kind of procedure that uses free thermodynamic operations to pre-process the input and post-process the output, such that the overall new process corresponds (approximately) to the quantum channel \mathcal{F}? We might picture the situation like this:

channel-simulation-E-F-01

Let us first simplify the question by supposing we don’t have a channel \mathcal{E} to start off with. How can we implement the channel \mathcal{F} from scratch, using only free thermodynamic operations and some invested work? That simple question led to pages and pages of calculations, lots of coffee, a few sleepless nights, and then more coffee. After finally overcoming several technical obstacles, we found that in the macroscopic limit of many copies of the channel, the corresponding amount of work per copy is given by the maximum difference of free energy F between the input and output of the channel. We decided to call this quantity the thermodynamic capacity of the channel:

thermodynamic-capacity-def

Intuitively, an implementation of \mathcal{F}^{\otimes n} must be prepared to expend an amount of work corresponding to the worst possible transformation of an input state to its corresponding output state. It’s kind of obvious in retrospect. However, what is nontrivial is that one can find a single implementation that works for all input states.

It turned out that this quantity had already been studied before. An earlier paper by Navascués and García-Pintos had shown that it was exactly this quantity that characterized the amount of work per copy that could be extracted by “consuming” many copies of a process \mathcal{E}^{\otimes n} provided as black boxes.

To our surprise, we realized that Navascués and García-Pintos’s result implied that the transformation of \mathcal{E}^{\otimes n} into \mathcal{F}^{\otimes n} is reversible. There is a simple procedure to convert \mathcal{E}^{\otimes n} into \mathcal{F}^{\otimes n} at a cost per copy that equals T(\mathcal{F}) - T(\mathcal{E}). The procedure consists in first extracting T(\mathcal{E}) work per copy of the first set of channels, and then preparing \mathcal{F}^{\otimes n} from scratch at a work cost of T(\mathcal{F}) per copy:

asympt-conversion-channels-E-to-F-01

Clearly, the reverse transformation yields back all the work invested in the forward transformation, making the transformation reversible. That’s because we could have started with \mathcal{F}’s and finished with \mathcal{E}’s instead of the opposite, and the associated work cost per copy would be T(\mathcal{E}) - T(\mathcal{F}). Thus the transformation is, indeed, reversible:

asympt-interconversion-channels-01

In turn, this implies that in the many-copy regime, quantum channels have a macroscopic thermodynamic behavior. That is, there is a thermodynamic potential—the thermodynamic capacity—that quantifies the minimal work required to transform one macroscopic set of channels into another.

Prospects for the thermodynamic capacity

Resource theories that are reversible are pretty rare. Reversibility is a coveted property because a reversible resource theory is one in which we can easily understand exactly which transformations are possible. Other than the thermodynamic resource theory of states mentioned above, most instances of a resource theory—especially resource theories of channels—typically produce the kind of overheads in the conversion cost that spoil reversibility. So it’s rather exciting when you do find a new reversible resource theory of channels.

Quantum information theorists, especially those working on the theory of quantum communication, care a lot about characterizing the capacity of a channel. This is the maximal amount of information that can be transmitted through a channel. Even though in our case we’re talking about a different kind of capacity—one where we transmit thermodynamic energy and entropy, rather than quantum bits of messages—there are some close parallels between the two settings from which both fields of quantum communication and quantum thermodynamics can profit. Our result draws deep inspiration from the so-called quantum reverse Shannon theorem, an important result in quantum communication that tells us how two parties can communicate using one kind of a channel if they have access to another kind of a channel. On the other hand, the thermodynamic capacity at zero energy is a quantity that was already studied in quantum communication, but it was not clear what that quantity represented concretely. This quantity gained even more importance as it was identified as the entropy of a channel. Now, we see that this quantity has a thermodynamic interpretation. Also, the thermodynamic capacity has a simple definition, it is relatively easy to compute and it is additive—all desirable properties that other measures of capacity of a quantum channel do not necessarily share.

We still have a few rough edges that I hope we can resolve sooner or later. In fact, there is an important caveat that I have avoided mentioning so far—our argument only holds for special kinds of channels, those that do the same thing regardless of when they are applied in time. (Those channels are called time-covariant.) A lot of channels that we’re used to studying have this property, but we think it should be possible to prove a version of our result for any general quantum channel. In fact, we do have another argument that works for all quantum channels, but it uses a slightly different thermodynamic framework which might not be physically well-grounded.

That’s all very nice, I can hear you think, but is this useful for any quantum computing applications? The truth is, we’re still pretty far from founding a new quantum start-up. The levels of heat dissipation in quantum logic elements are still orders of magnitude away from the fundamental limits that we study in the thermodynamic resource theory.

Rather, our result teaches us about the interplay of quantum channels and thermodynamic concepts. We not only have gained useful insight on the structure of quantum channels, but also developed new tools for how to analyze them. These will be useful to study more involved resource theories of channels. And still, in the future when quantum technologies will perhaps approach the thermodynamically reversible limit, it might be good to know how to implement a given quantum channel in such a way that good accuracy is guaranteed for any possible quantum input state, and without any inherent overhead due to the fact that we don’t know what the input state is.

Thermodynamics, a theory developed to study gases and steam engines, has turned out to be relevant from the most obvious to the most unexpected of situations—chemical reactions, electromagnetism, solid state physics, black holes, you name it. Trust the laws of thermodynamics to surprise you again by applying to a setting you’d never imagined them to, like quantum channels.

Quantum information in quantum cognition

Some research topics, says conventional wisdom, a physics PhD student shouldn’t touch with an iron-tipped medieval lance: sinkholes in the foundations of quantum theory. Problems so hard, you’d have a snowball’s chance of achieving progress. Problems so obscure, you’d have a snowball’s chance of convincing anyone to care about progress. Whether quantum physics could influence cognition much.

Quantum physics influences cognition insofar as (i) quantum physics prevents atoms from imploding and (ii) implosion inhabits atoms from contributing to cognition. But most physicists believe that useful entanglement can’t survive in brains. Entanglement consists of correlations shareable by quantum systems and stronger than any achievable by classical systems. Useful entanglement dies quickly in hot, wet, random environments. 

Brains form such environments. Imagine injecting entangled molecules A and B into someone’s brain. Water, ions, and other particles would bombard the molecules. The higher the temperature, the heavier the bombardment. The bombardiers would entangle with the molecules via electric and magnetic fields. Each molecule can share only so much entanglement. The more A entangled with the environment, the less A could remain entangled with B. A would come to share a tiny amount of entanglement with each of many particles. Such tiny amounts couldn’t accomplish much. So quantum physics seems unlikely to affect cognition significantly.

Lances

Do not touch.

Yet my PhD advisor, John Preskill, encouraged me to consider whether the possibility interested me.

Try some completely different research, he said. Take a risk. If it doesn’t pan out, fine. People don’t expect much of grad students, anyway. Have you seen Matthew Fisher’s paper about quantum cognition? 

Matthew Fisher is a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has plaudits out the wazoo, many for his work on superconductors. A few years ago, Matthew developed an interest in biochemistry. He knew that most physicists doubt whether quantum physics could affect cognition much. But suppose that it could, he thought. How could it? Matthew reverse-engineered a mechanism, in a paper published by Annals of Physics in 2015.

A PhD student shouldn’t touch such research with a ten-foot radio antenna, says conventional wisdom. But I trust John Preskill in a way in which I trust no one else on Earth.

I’ll look at the paper, I said.

Risk

Matthew proposed that quantum physics could influence cognition as follows. Experimentalists have performed quantum computation using one hot, wet, random system: that of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). NMR is the process that underlies magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a technique used to image people’s brains. A common NMR system consists of high-temperature liquid molecules. The molecules consists of atoms whose nuclei have quantum properties called spin. The nuclear spins encode quantum information (QI).

Nuclear spins, Matthew reasoned, might store QI in our brains. He catalogued the threats that could damage the QI. Hydrogen ions, he concluded, would threaten the QI most. They could entangle with (decohere) the spins via dipole-dipole interactions.

How can a spin avoid the threats? First, by having a quantum number s = 1/2. Such a quantum number zeroes out the nuclei’s electric quadrupole moments. Electric-quadrupole interactions can’t decohere such spins. Which biologically prevalent atoms have s = 1/2 nuclear spins? Phosphorus and hydrogen. Hydrogen suffers from other vulnerabilities, so phosphorus nuclear spins store QI in Matthew’s story. The spins serve as qubits, or quantum bits.

How can a phosphorus spin avoid entangling with other spins via magnetic dipole-dipole interactions? Such interactions depend on the spins’ orientations relative to their positions. Suppose that the phosphorus occupies a small molecule that tumbles in biofluids. The nucleus’s position changes randomly. The interaction can average out over tumbles.

The molecule contains atoms other than phosphorus. Those atoms have nuclei whose spins can interact with the phosphorus spins, unless every threatening spin has a quantum number s = 0. Which biologically prevalent atoms have s = 0 nuclear spins? Oxygen and calcium. The phosphorus should therefore occupy a molecule with oxygen and calcium.

Matthew designed this molecule to block decoherence. Then, he found the molecule in the scientific literature. The structure, {\rm Ca}_9 ({\rm PO}_4)_6, is called a Posner cluster or a Posner molecule. I’ll call it a Posner, for short. Posners appear to exist in simulated biofluids, fluids created to mimic the fluids in us. Posners are believed to exist in us and might participate in bone formation. According to Matthew’s estimates, Posners might protect phosphorus nuclear spins for up to 1-10 days.

Posner 2

Posner molecule (image courtesy of Swift et al.)

How can Posners influence cognition? Matthew proposed the following story.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a molecule that fuels biochemical reactions. “Triphosphate” means “containing three phosphate ions.” Phosphate ({\rm PO}_4^{3-}) consists of one phosphorus atom and three oxygen atoms. Two of an ATP molecule’s phosphates can break off while remaining joined to each other.

The phosphate pair can drift until encountering an enzyme called pyrophosphatase. The enzyme can break the pair into independent phosphates. Matthew, with Leo Radzihovsky, conjectured that, as the pair breaks, the phosphorus nuclear spins are projected onto a singlet. This state, represented by \frac{1}{ \sqrt{2} } ( | \uparrow \downarrow \rangle - | \downarrow \uparrow \rangle ), is maximally entangled. 

Imagine many entangled phosphates in a biofluid. Six phosphates can join nine calcium ions to form a Posner molecule. The Posner can share up to six singlets with other Posners. Clouds of entangled Posners can form.

One clump of Posners can enter one neuron while another clump enters another neuron. The protein VGLUT, or BNPI, sits in cell membranes and has the potential to ferry Posners in. The neurons will share entanglement. Imagine two Posners, P and Q, approaching each other in a neuron N. Quantum-chemistry calculations suggest that the Posners can bind together. Suppose that P shares entanglement with a Posner P’ in a neuron N’, while Q shares entanglement with a Posner Q’ in N’. The entanglement, with the binding of P to Q, can raise the probability that P’ binds to Q’.

Bound-together Posners will move slowly, having to push much water out of the way. Hydrogen and magnesium ions can latch onto the slow molecules easily. The Posners’ negatively charged phosphates will attract the {\rm H}^+ and {\rm Mg}^{2+} as the phosphates attract the Posner’s {\rm Ca}^{2+}. The hydrogen and magnesium can dislodge the calcium, breaking apart the Posners. Calcium will flood neurons N and N’. Calcium floods a neuron’s axion terminal (the end of the neuron) when an electrical signal reaches the axion. The flood induces the neuron to release neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that travel to the next neuron, inducing it to fire. So entanglement between phosphorus nuclear spins in Posner molecules might stimulate coordinated neuron firing.

Neurons

Does Matthew’s story play out in the body? We can’t know till running experiments and analyzing the results. Experiments have begun: Last year, the Heising-Simons Foundation granted Matthew and collaborators $1.2 million to test the proposal.

Suppose that Matthew conjectures correctly, John challenged me, or correctly enough. Posner molecules store QI. Quantum systems can process information in ways in which classical systems, like laptops, can’t. How adroitly can Posners process QI?

I threw away my iron-tipped medieval lance in year five of my PhD. I left Caltech for a five-month fellowship, bent on returning with a paper with which to answer John. I did, and Annals of Physics published the paper this month.

Digest image

I had the fortune to interest Elizabeth Crosson in the project. Elizabeth, now an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, was working as a postdoc in John’s group. Both of us are theorists who specialize in QI theory. But our backgrounds, skills, and specialties differ. We complemented each other while sharing a doggedness that kept us emailing, GChatting, and Google-hangout-ing at all hours.

Elizabeth and I translated Matthew’s biochemistry into the mathematical language of QI theory. We dissected Matthew’s narrative into a sequence of biochemical steps. We ascertained how each step would transform the QI encoded in the phosphorus nuclei. Each transformation, we represented with a piece of math and with a circuit-diagram element. (Circuit-diagram elements are pictures strung together to form circuits that run algorithms.) The set of transformations, we called Posner operations.

Imagine that you can perform Posner operations, by preparing molecules, trying to bind them together, etc. What QI-processing tasks can you perform? Elizabeth and I found applications to quantum communication, quantum error detection, and quantum computation. Our results rest on the assumption—possibly inaccurate—that Matthew conjectures correctly. Furthermore, we characterized what Posners could achieve if controlled. Randomness, rather than control, would direct Posners in biofluids. But what can happen in principle offers a starting point.

First, QI can be teleported from one Posner to another, while suffering noise.1 This noisy teleportation doubles as superdense coding: A trit is a random variable that assumes one of three possible values. A bit is a random variable that assumes one of two possible values. You can teleport a trit from one Posner to another effectively, while transmitting a bit directly, with help from entanglement. 

Teleport

Second, Matthew argued that Posners’ structures protect QI. Scientists have developed quantum error-correcting and -detecting codes to protect QI. Can Posners implement such codes, in our model? Yes: Elizabeth and I (with help from erstwhile Caltech postdoc Fernando Pastawski) developed a quantum error-detection code accessible to Posners. One Posner encodes a logical qutrit, the quantum version of a trit. The code detects any error that slams any of the Posner’s six qubits.

Third, how complicated an entangled state can Posner operations prepare? A powerful one, we found: Suppose that you can measure this state locally, such that earlier measurements’ outcomes affect which measurements you perform later. You can perform any quantum computation. That is, Posner operations can prepare a state that fuels universal measurement-based quantum computation.

Finally, Elizabeth and I quantified effects of entanglement on the rate at which Posners bind together. Imagine preparing two Posners, P and P’, that share entanglement only with other particles. If the Posners approach each other with the right orientation, they have a 33.6% chance of binding, in our model. Now, suppose that every qubit in P is maximally entangled with a qubit in P’. The binding probability can rise to 100%.

Circuit

Elizabeth and I recast as a quantum circuit a biochemical process discussed in Matthew Fisher’s 2015 paper.

I feared that other scientists would pooh-pooh our work as crazy. To my surprise, enthusiasm flooded in. Colleagues cheered the risk on a challenge in an emerging field that perks up our ears. Besides, Elizabeth’s and my work is far from crazy. We don’t assert that quantum physics affects cognition. We imagine that Matthew conjectures correctly, acknowledging that he might not, and explore his proposal’s implications. Being neither biochemists nor experimentalists, we restrict our claims to QI theory.

Maybe Posners can’t protect coherence for long enough. Would inaccuracy of Matthew’s beach our whale of research? No. Posners prompted us to propose ideas and questions within QI theory. For instance, our quantum circuits illustrate interactions (unitary gates, to experts) interspersed with measurements implemented by the binding of Posners. The circuits partially motivated a subfield that emerged last summer and is picking up speed: Consider interspersing random unitary gates with measurements. The unitaries tend to entangle qubits, whereas the measurements disentangle. Which influence wins? Does the system undergo a phase transition from “mostly entangled” to “mostly unentangled” at some measurement frequency? Researchers from Santa Barbara to Colorado; MIT; Oxford; Lancaster, UK; Berkeley; Stanford; and Princeton have taken up the challenge.  

A physics PhD student, conventional wisdom says, shouldn’t touch quantum cognition with a Swiss guard’s halberd. I’m glad I reached out: I learned much, contributed to science, and had an adventure. Besides, if anyone disapproves of daring, I can blame John Preskill.

Lance

Annals of Physics published “Quantum information in the Posner model of quantum cognition” here. You can find the arXiv version here and can watch a talk about our paper here. 

1Experts: The noise arises because, if two Posners bind, they effectively undergo a measurement. This measurement transforms a subspace of the two-Posner Hilbert space as a coarse-grained Bell measurement. A Bell measurement yields one of four possible outcomes, or two bits. Discarding one of the bits amounts to coarse-graining the outcome. Quantum teleportation involves a Bell measurement. Coarse-graining the measurement introduces noise into the teleportation.

Quantum Information Meets Quantum Matter: Now Published!

Two things you should know about me are: (1) I have unbounded admiration for scientists who can actually finish writing a book, and (2) I’m a firm believer that exciting progress can be ignited when two fields fuse together. So I’m doubly thrilled that Quantum Information Meets Quantum Matter, by IQIM physicist Xie Chen and her colleagues Bei Zeng, Duan-Lu Zhou, and Xiao-Gang Wen, has now been published by Springer.

The authors kindly invited me to write a foreword for the book, which I was happy to contribute. That foreword is reproduced here, with the permission of the publisher.

Foreword

In 1989 I attended a workshop at the University of Minnesota. The organizers had hoped the workshop would spawn new ideas about the origin of high-temperature superconductivity, which had recently been discovered. But I was especially impressed by a talk about the fractional quantum Hall effect by a young physicist named Xiao-Gang Wen.

From Wen I heard for the first time about a concept called topological order. He explained that for some quantum phases of two-dimensional matter the ground state becomes degenerate when the system resides on a surface of nontrivial topology such as a torus, and that the degree of degeneracy provides a useful signature for distinguishing different phases. I was fascinated.

Up until then, studies of phases of matter and the transitions between them usually built on principles annunciated decades earlier by Lev Landau. Landau had emphasized the crucial role of symmetry, and of local order parameters that distinguish different symmetry realizations. Though much of what Wen said went over my head, I did manage to glean that he was proposing a way to distinguish quantum phases founded on much different principles that Landau’s. As a particle physicist I deeply appreciated the power of Landau theory, but I was also keenly aware that the interface of topology and physics had already yielded many novel and fruitful insights.

Mulling over these ideas on the plane ride home, I scribbled a few lines of verse:

Now we are allowed
To disavow Landau.
Wow …

Without knowing where it might lead, one could sense the opening of a new chapter.

At around that same time, another new research direction was beginning to gather steam, the study of quantum information. Richard Feynman and Yuri Manin had suggested that a computer processing quantum information might perform tasks beyond the reach of ordinary digital computers. David Deutsch formalized the idea, which attracted the attention of computer scientists, and eventually led to Peter Shor’s discovery that a quantum computer can factor large numbers in polynomial time. Meanwhile, Alexander Holevo, Charles Bennett and others seized the opportunity to unify Claude Shannon’s information theory with quantum physics, erecting new schemes for quantifying quantum entanglement and characterizing processes in which quantum information is acquired, transmitted, and processed.

The discovery of Shor’s algorithm caused a burst of excitement and activity, but quantum information science remained outside the mainstream of physics, and few scientists at that time glimpsed the rich connections between quantum information and the study of quantum matter. One notable exception was Alexei Kitaev, who had two remarkable insights in the 1990s. He pointed out that finding the ground state energy of a quantum system defined by a “local” Hamiltonian, when suitably formalized, is as hard as any problem whose solution can be verified with a quantum computer. This idea launched the study of Hamiltonian complexity. Kitaev also discerned the relationship between Wen’s concept of topological order and the quantum error-correcting codes that can protect delicate quantum superpositions from the ravages of environmental decoherence. Kitaev’s notion of a topological quantum computer, a mere theorist’s fantasy when proposed in 1997, is by now pursued in experimental laboratories around the world (though the technology still has far to go before truly scalable quantum computers will be capable of addressing hard problems).

Thereafter progress accelerated, led by a burgeoning community of scientists working at the interface of quantum information and quantum matter. Guifre Vidal realized that many-particle quantum systems that are only slightly entangled can be succinctly described using tensor networks. This new method extended the reach of mean-field theory and provided an illuminating new perspective on the successes of the Density Matrix Renormalization Group (DMRG). By proving that the ground state of a local Hamiltonian with an energy gap has limited entanglement (the area law), Matthew Hastings showed that tensor network tools are widely applicable. These tools eventually led to a complete understanding of gapped quantum phases in one spatial dimension.

The experimental discovery of topological insulators focused attention on the interplay of symmetry and topology. The more general notion of a symmetry-protected topological (SPT) phase arose, in which a quantum system has an energy gap in the bulk but supports gapless excitations confined to its boundary which are protected by specified symmetries. (For topological insulators the symmetries are particle-number conservation and time-reversal invariance.) Again, tensor network methods proved to be well suited for establishing a complete classification of one-dimensional SPT phases, and guided progress toward understanding higher dimensions, though many open questions remain.

We now have a much deeper understanding of topological order than when I first heard about it from Wen nearly 30 years ago. A central new insight is that topologically ordered systems have long-range entanglement, and that the entanglement has universal properties, like topological entanglement entropy, which are insensitive to the microscopic details of the Hamiltonian. Indeed, topological order is an intrinsic property of a quantum state and can be identified without reference to any particular Hamiltonian at all. To understand the meaning of long-range entanglement, imagine a quantum computer which applies a sequence of geometrically local operations to an input quantum state, producing an output product state which is completely disentangled. If the time required to complete this disentangling computation is independent of the size of the system, then we say the input state is short-ranged entangled; otherwise it is long-range entangled. More generally (loosely speaking), two states are in different quantum phases if no constant-time quantum computation can convert one state to the other. This fundamental connection between quantum computation and quantum order has many ramifications which are explored in this book.

When is the right time for a book that summarizes the status of an ongoing research area? It’s a subtle question. The subject should be sufficiently mature that enduring concepts and results can be identified and clearly explained. If the pace of progress is sufficiently rapid, and the topics emphasized are not well chosen, then an ill-timed book might become obsolete quickly. On the other hand, the subject ought not to be too mature; only if there are many exciting open questions to attack will the book be likely to attract a sizable audience eager to master the material.

I feel confident that Quantum Information Meets Quantum Matter is appearing at an opportune time, and that the authors have made wise choices about what to include. They are world-class experts, and are themselves responsible for many of the scientific advances explained here. The student or senior scientist who studies this book closely will be well grounded in the tools and ideas at the forefront of current research at the confluence of quantum information science and quantum condensed matter physics.

Indeed, I expect that in the years ahead a steadily expanding community of scientists, including computer scientists, chemists, and high-energy physicists, will want to be well acquainted with the ideas at the heart of Quantum Information Meets Quantum Matter. In particular, growing evidence suggests that the quantum physics of spacetime itself is an emergent manifestation of long-range quantum entanglement in an underlying more fundamental quantum theory. More broadly, as quantum technology grows ever more sophisticated, I believe that the theoretical and experimental study of highly complex many-particle systems will be an increasingly central theme of 21st century physical science. It that’s true, Quantum Information Meets Quantum Matter is bound to hold an honored place on the bookshelves of many scientists for years to come.

John Preskill
Pasadena, California
September 2018

 

 

“A theorist I can actually talk with”

Haunted mansions have ghosts, football teams have mascots, and labs have in-house theorists. I found myself posing as a lab’s theorist at Caltech. The gig began when Oskar Painter, a Caltech experimentalist, emailed that he’d read my first paper about quantum chaos. Would I discuss the paper with the group?

Oskar’s lab was building superconducting qubits, tiny circuits in which charge can flow forever. The lab aimed to control scores of qubits, to develop a quantum many-body system. Entanglement—strong correlations that quantum systems can sustain and everyday systems can’t—would spread throughout the qubits. The system could realize phases of matter—like many-particle quantum chaos—off-limits to most materials.

How could Oskar’s lab characterize the entanglement, the entanglement’s spread, and the phases? Expert readers will suggest measuring an entropy, a gauge of how much information this part of the system holds about that part. But experimentalists have had trouble measuring entropies. Besides, one measurement can’t capture many-body entanglement; such entanglement involves too many intricacies. Oskar was searching for arrows to add to his lab’s measurement quiver.

Mascot

In-house theorist?

I’d proposed a protocol for measuring a characterization of many-body entanglement, quantum chaos, and thermalization—a property called “the out-of-time-ordered correlator.” The protocol appealed to Oskar. But practicalities limit quantum many-body experiments: The more qubits your system contains, the more the system can contact its environment, like stray particles. The stronger the interactions, the more the environment entangles with the qubits, and the less the qubits entangle with each other. Quantum information leaks from the qubits into their surroundings; what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. Would imperfections mar my protocol?

I didn’t know. But I knew someone who could help us find out.

Justin Dressel works at Chapman University as a physics professor. He’s received the highest praise that I’ve heard any experimentalist give a theorist: “He’s a theorist I can actually talk to.” With other collaborators, Justin and I simplified my scheme for measuring out-of-time-ordered correlators. Justin knew what superconducting-qubit experimentalists could achieve, and he’d been helping them reach for more.

How about, I asked Justin, we simulate our protocol on a computer? We’d code up virtual superconducting qubits, program in interactions with the environment, run our measurement scheme, and assess the results’ noisiness. Justin had the tools to simulate the qubits, but he lacked the time. 

Know any postdocs or students who’d take an interest? I asked.

Chapman.001

Chapman University’s former science center. Don’t you wish you spent winters in California?

José Raúl González Alonso has a smile like a welcome sign and a coffee cup glued to one hand. He was moving to Chapman University to work as a Grand Challenges Postdoctoral Fellow. José had built simulations, and he jumped at the chance to study quantum chaos.

José confirmed Oskar’s fear and other simulators’ findings: The environment threatens measurements of the out-of-time-ordered correlator. Suppose that you measure this correlator at each of many instants, you plot the correlator against time, and you see the correlator drop. If you’ve isolated your qubits from their environment, we can expect them to carry many-body entanglement. Golden. But the correlator can drop if, instead, the environment is harassing your qubits. You can misdiagnose leaking as many-body entanglement.

OTOC plots

Our triumvirate identified a solution. Justin and I had discovered another characterization of quantum chaos and many-body entanglement: a quasiprobability, a quantum generalization of a probability.  

The quasiprobability contains more information about the entanglement than the out-of-time-ordered-correlator does. José simulated measurements of the quasiprobability. The quasiprobability, he found, behaves one way when the qubits entangle independently of their environment and behaves another way when the qubits leak. You can measure the quasiprobability to decide whether to trust your out-of-time-ordered-correlator measurement or to isolate your qubits better. The quasiprobability enables us to avoid false positives.

Physical Review Letters published our paper last month. Working with Justin and José deepened my appetite for translating between the abstract and the concrete, for proving abstractions as a theorist’s theorist and realizing them experimentally as a lab’s theorist. Maybe, someday, I’ll earn the tag “a theorist I can actually talk with” from an experimentalist. For now, at least I serve better than a football-team mascot.

Symmetries and quantum error correction

It’s always exciting when you can bridge two different physical concepts that seem to have nothing in common—and it’s even more thrilling when the results have as broad a range of possible fields of application as from fault-tolerant quantum computation to quantum gravity.

Physicists love to draw connections between distinct ideas, interconnecting concepts and theories to uncover new structure in the landscape of scientific knowledge. Put together information theory with quantum mechanics and you’ve opened a whole new field of quantum information theory. More recently, machine learning tools have been combined with many-body physics to find new ways to identify phases of matter, and ideas from quantum computing were applied to Pozner molecules to obtain new plausible models of how the brain might work.

In a recent contribution, my collaborators and I took a shot at combining the two physical concepts of quantum error correction and physical symmetries. What can we say about a quantum error-correcting code that conforms to a physical symmetry? Surprisingly, a continuous symmetry prevents the code from doing its job: A code can conform well to the symmetry, or it can correct against errors accurately, but it cannot do both simultaneously.

By a continuous symmetry, we mean a transformation that is characterized by a set of continuous parameters, such as angles. For instance, if I am holding an atom in my hand (more realistically, it’ll be confined in some fancy trap with lots of lasers), then I can rotate it around and about in space:

A rotation like this is fully specified by an axis and an angle, which are continuous parameters. Other transformations that we could think of are, for instance, time evolution, or a continuous family of unitary gates that we might want to apply to the system.

On the other hand, a code is a way of embedding some logical information into physical systems:

By cleverly distributing the information that we care about over several physical systems, an error-correcting code is able to successfully recover the original logical information even if the physical systems are exposed to some noise. Quantum error-correcting codes are particularly promising for quantum computing, since qubits tend to lose their information really fast (current typical ones can hold their information for a few seconds). In this way, instead of storing the actual information we care about on a single qubit, we use extra qubits which we prepare in a complicated state that is designed to protect this information from the noise.

Covariant codes for quantum computation

A code that is compatible with respect to a physical symmetry is called covariant. This property ensures that if I apply a symmetry transformation on the logical information, this is equivalent to applying corresponding symmetry transformations on each of the physical systems.

Suppose I would like to flip my qubit from “0” to “1” and from “1” to “0”. If my information is stored in an encoded form, then in principle I first need to decode the information to uncover the original logical information, apply the flip operation, and then re-encode the new logical information back onto the physical qubits. A covariant code allows to perform the transformation directly on the physical qubits, without having to decode the information first:

The advantage of this scheme is that the logical information is never exposed and remains protected all along the computation.

But here’s the catch: Eastin and Knill famously proved that error-correcting codes can be at most covariant with respect to a finite set of transformations, ruling out universal computation with transversal gates. In other words, the computations we can perform using this scheme are very limited because we can’t perform any continuous symmetry transformation.

Interestingly, however, there’s a loophole: If we consider macroscopic systems, such as a particle with a very large value of spin, then it becomes possible again to construct codes that are covariant with respect to continuous transformations.

How is that possible, you ask? How do we transition from the microscopic regime, where covariant codes are ruled out for continuous symmetries, to the macroscopic regime, where they are allowed? We provide an answer by resorting to approximate quantum error correction. Namely, we consider the situation where the code does not have to correct each error exactly, but only has to reconstruct a good approximation of the logical information. As it turns out, there is a quantitative limit to how accurately a code can correct against errors if it is covariant with respect to a continuous symmetry, represented by the following equation:

where epsilon specifies how inaccurately the code error-corrects (epsiloneqzero means the code can correct against errors perfectly), n is the number of physical subsystems, and the DeltaT_logical and DeltaT_physical are measures of “how strongly” the symmetry transformation can act on the logical and physical subsystems.

Let’s try to understand the right-hand side of this equation. In physics, continuous symmetries are generated by what we call physical charges. These are physical quantities that are associated with the symmetry, and that characterize how the symmetry acts on each state of the system. For instance, the charge that corresponds to time evolution is simply energy: States that label high energies have a rapidly varying phase whereas the phase of low-energy states changes slowly in time. Above, we indicate by DeltaT_logical the range of possible charge values on the logical system and by DeltaT_physical the corresponding range of charge values on each physical subsystem. In typical settings, this range of charge values is related to the dimension of the system—the more states the system has, intuitively, the greater range of charges it can accommodate.

The above equation states that the inaccuracy of the code must be larger than some value given on the right-hand side of the equation, which depends on the number of subsystems n and the ranges of charge values on the logical system and physical subsystems. The right-hand side becomes small in two regimes: if each subsystem can accommodate a large range of charge values, or if there is a large number of physical systems. In these regimes, our limitation vanishes, and we can circumvent the Eastin-Knill theorem and construct good covariant error-correcting codes. This allows us to connect the two regimes that seemed incompatible earlier, the microscopic regime where there cannot be any covariant codes, and the macroscopic regime where they are allowed.

From quantum computation to many-body physics and quantum gravity

Quantum error-correcting codes not only serve to protect information in a quantum computation against noise, but they also provide a conceptual toolbox to understand complex physical systems where a quantum state is delocalized over many physical subsystems. The tight connections between quantum error correction and many-body physics have been put to light following a long history of pioneering research at Caltech in these fields. And as if that weren’t enough, quantum error correcting codes were also shown to play a crucial role in understanding quantum gravity.

There is an abundance of natural physical symmetries to consider both in many-body physics and in quantum gravity, and that gives us a good reason to be excited about characterizing covariant codes. For instance, there are natural approximate quantum error correcting codes that appear in some statistical mechanical models by cleverly picking global energy eigenstates. These codes are covariant with respect to time evolution by construction, since the codewords are energy eigenstates. Now, we understand more precisely under which conditions such codes can be constructed.

Perhaps an even more illustrative example is that of time evolution in holographic quantum gravity, that is, in the AdS/CFT correspondence. This model of quantum gravity has the property that it is equivalent to a usual quantum field theory that lives on the boundary of the universe. What’s more, the correspondence which tells us how the bulk quantum gravity theory is mapped to the boundary is, in fact, a quantum error-correcting code. If we add a time axis, then the picture becomes a cylinder where the interior is the theory of quantum gravity, and where the cylinder itself represents a traditional quantum field theory:

AdSCFT-01

Since the bulk theory and the boundary theory are equivalent, the action of time evolution must be faithfully represented in both pictures. But this is in apparent contradiction with the Eastin-Knill theorem, from which it follows that a quantum error-correcting code cannot be covariant with respect to a continuous symmetry. We now understand how this is, in fact, not a contradiction: As we’ve seen, codes may be covariant with respect to continuous symmetries in the presence of systems with a large number of degrees of freedom, such as a quantum field theory.

What’s next?

There are some further results in our paper that I have not touched upon in this post, including a precise approximate statement of the Eastin-Knill theorem in terms of system dimensions, and a fun machinery to construct covariant codes for more general systems such as oscillators and rotors.

We have only scratched the surface of the different applications I’ve mentioned, by studying the properties of covariant codes in general. I’m now excited to dive into more detail with our wonderful team to study deeper applications to correlations in many-body systems, global symmetries in quantum gravity, accuracy limits of quantum clocks and precision limits to quantum metrology in the presence of noise.

This has been an incredibly fun project to work on. Such a collaboration illustrates again the benefit of interacting with great scientists with a wide range of areas of expertise including representation theory, continuous variable systems, and quantum gravity. Thanks Sepehr, Victor, Grant, Fernando, Patrick, and John, for this fantastic experience.

Humans can intuit quantum physics.

One evening this January, audience members packed into a lecture hall in MIT’s physics building. Undergraduates, members of the public, faculty members, and other scholars came to watch a film premiere and a panel discussion. NOVA had produced the film, “Einstein’s Quantum Riddle,” which stars entanglement. Entanglement is a relationship between quantum systems such as electrons. Measuring two entangled electrons yields two outcomes, analogous to the numbers that face upward after you roll two dice. The quantum measurements’ outcomes can exhibit correlations stronger than any measurements of any classical, or nonquantum, systems can. Which die faces point upward can share only so much correlation, even if the dice hit each other.

einstein's q. riddle

Dice feature in the film’s explanations of entanglement. So does a variation on the shell game, in which one hides a ball under one of three cups, shuffles the cups, and challenges viewers to guess which cup is hiding the ball. The film derives its drama from the Cosmic Bell test. Bell tests are experiments crafted to show that classical physics can’t describe entanglement. Scientists recently enhanced Bell tests using light from quasars—ancient, bright, faraway galaxies. Mix astrophysics with quantum physics, and an edgy, pulsing soundtrack follows.

The Cosmic Bell test grew from a proposal by physicists at MIT and the University of Chicago. The coauthors include David Kaiser, a historian of science and a physicist on MIT’s faculty. Dave co-organized the premiere and the panel discussion that followed. The panel featured Dave; Paola Cappellaro, an MIT quantum experimentalist; Alan Guth, an MIT cosmologist who contributed to the Bell test; Calvin Leung, an MIT PhD student who contributed; Chris Schmidt, the film’s producer; and me. Brindha Muniappan, the Director of Education and Public Programs at the MIT Museum, moderated the discussion.

panel

think that the other panelists were laughing with me.

Brindha asked what challenges I face when explaining quantum physics, such as on this blog. Quantum theory wears the labels “weird,” “counterintuitive,” and “bizarre” in journalism, interviews, blogs, and films. But the thorn in my communicational side reflects quantum “weirdness” less than it reflects humanity’s self-limitation: Many people believe that we can’t grasp quantum physics. They shut down before asking me to explain.

Examples include a friend and Quantum Frontiers follower who asks, year after year, for books about quantum physics. I suggest literature—much by Dave Kaiser—he reads some, and we discuss his impressions. He’s learning, he harbors enough curiosity to have maintained this routine for years, and he has technical experience as a programmer. But he’s demurred, several times, along the lines of “But…I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever understand it. Humans can’t understand quantum physics, can we? It’s too weird.” 

Quantum physics defies many expectations sourced from classical physics. Classical physics governs how basketballs arch, how paint dries, how sunlight slants through your window, and other everyday experiences. Yet we can gain intuition about quantum physics. If we couldn’t, how could we solve problems and accomplish research? Physicists often begin solving problems by trying to guess the answer from intuition. We reason our way toward a guess by stripping away complications, constructing toy models, and telling stories. We tell stories about particles hopping from site to site on lattices, particles trapped in wells, and arrows flipping upward and downward. These stories don’t capture all of quantum physics, but they capture the essentials. After grasping the essentials, we translate them into math, check how far our guesses lie from truth, and correct our understanding. Intuition about quantum physics forms the compass that guides problem solving.

Growing able to construct, use, and mathematize such stories requires work. You won’t come to understand quantum theory by watching NOVA films, though films can prime you for study. You can gain a facility with quantum theory through classes, problem sets, testing, research, seminars, and further processing. You might not have the time or inclination to. Even if you have, you might not come to understand why quantum theory describes our universe: Science can’t necessarily answer all “why” questions. But you can grasp what quantum theory implies about our universe.

People grasp physics arguably more exotic than quantum theory, without exciting the disbelief excited by a grasp of quantum theory. Consider the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. Voyager has survived solar winds and -452º F weather, imaged planets, and entered interstellar space. Classical physics—the physics of how basketballs arch—describes much of Voyager’s experience. But even if you’ve shot baskets, how much intuition do you have about interstellar space? I know physicists who claim to have more intuition about quantum physics than about much classical. When astrophysicists discuss Voyager and interstellar space, moreover, listeners don’t fret that comprehension lies beyond them. No one need fret when quantum physicists discuss the electrons in us.

Fretting might not occur to future generations: Outreach teams are introducing kids to quantum physics through games and videos. Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter has partnered with Google to produce QCraft, a quantum variation on Minecraft, and with the University of Southern California on quantum chess. In 2017, the American Physical Society’s largest annual conference featured a session called “Gamification and other Novel Approaches in Quantum Physics Outreach.” Such outreach exposes kids to quantum terminology and concepts early. Quantum theory becomes a playground to explore, rather than a source of intimidation. Players will grow up primed to think about quantum-mechanics courses not “Will my grade-point average survive this semester?” but “Ah, so this is the math under the hood of entanglement.”

qcraft 2

Sociology restricts people to thinking quantum physics weird. But quantum theory defies classical expectations less than it could. Measurement outcomes could share correlations stronger than the correlations sourced by entanglement. How strong could the correlations grow? How else could physics depart farther from classical physics than quantum physics does? Imagine the worlds governed by all possible types of physics, called “generalized probabilistic theories” (GPTs). GPTs form a landscape in which quantum theory constitutes an island, on which classical physics constitutes a hill. Compared with the landscape’s outskirts, our quantum world looks tame.

GPTs fall under the research category of quantum foundations. Quantum foundations concerns why the math that describes quantum systems describes quantum systems, reformulations of quantum theory, how quantum theory differs from classical mechanics, how quantum theory could deviate but doesn’t, and what happens during measurements of quantum systems. Though questions about quantum foundations remain, they don’t block us from intuiting about quantum theory. A stable owner can sense when a horse has colic despite lacking a veterinary degree.

Moreover, quantum-foundations research has advanced over the past few decades. Collaborations and tools have helped: Theorists have been partnering with experimentalists, such as on the Cosmic Bell test and on studies of measurement. Information theory has engendered mathematical tools for quantifying entanglement and other quantum phenomena. Information theory has also firmed up an approach called “operationalism.” Operationalists emphasize preparation procedures, evolutions, and measurements. Focusing on actions and data concretizes arguments and facilitates comparisons with experiments. As quantum-foundations research has advanced, so have quantum information theory, quantum experiments, quantum technologies, and interdisciplinary cross-pollination. Twentieth-century quantum physicists didn’t imagine the community, perspectives, and knowledge that we’ve accrued. So don’t adopt 20th-century pessimism about understanding quantum theory. Einstein grasped much, but today’s scientific community grasps more. Richard Feynman said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Feynman helped spur the quantum-information revolution; he died before its adolescence. Besides, Feynman understood plenty about quantum theory. Intuition jumps off the pages of his lecture notes and speeches.

landscape

Landscape beyond quantum theory

I’ve swum in oceans and lakes, studied how the moon generates tides, and canoed. But piloting a steamboat along the Mississippi would baffle me. I could learn, given time, instruction, and practice; so can you learn quantum theory. Don’t let “weirdness,” “bizarreness,” or “counterintuitiveness” intimidate you. Humans can intuit quantum physics.