Quantum Error Correction with Molecules

In the previous blog post (titled, “On the Coattails of Quantum Supremacy“) we started with Google and ended up with molecules! I also mentioned a recent paper by John Preskill, Jake Covey, and myself (see also this videoed talk) where we assume that, somewhere in the (near?) future, experimentalists will be able to construct quantum superpositions of several orientations of molecules or other rigid bodies. Next, I’d like to cover a few more details on how to construct error-correcting codes for anything from classical bits in your phone to those future quantum computers, molecular or otherwise.

Classical error correction: the basics

Error correction is concerned with the design of an encoding that allows for protection against noise. Let’s say we want to protect one classical bit, which is in either “0” or “1”. If the bit is say in “0”, and the environment (say, the strong magnetic field from a magnet you forgot was laying next to your hard drive) flipped it to “1” without our knowledge, an error would result (e.g., making your phone think you swiped right!)

Now let’s encode our single logical bit into three physical bits, whose 2^3=8 possible states are represented by the eight corners of the cube below. Let’s encode the logical bit as “0” —> 000 and “1” —> 111, corresponding to the corners of the cube marked by the black and white ball, respectively. For our (local) noise model, we assume that flips of only one of the three physical bits are more likely to occur than flips of two or three at the same time.

Error correction is, like many Hollywood movies, an origin story. If, say, the first bit flips in our above code, the 000 state is mapped to 100, and 111 is mapped to 011. Since we have assumed that the most likely error is a flip of one of the bits, we know upon observing that 100 must have come from the clean 000, and 011 from 111. Thus, in either case of the logical bit being “0” or “1”, we can recover the information by simply observing which state the majority of the bits are in. The same things happen when the second or third bits flip. In all three cases, the logical “0” state is mapped to one of its three neighboring points (above, in blue) while the logical “1” is mapped to its own three points, which, crucially, are distinct from the neighbors of “0”. The set of points \{000,100,010,001\} that are closer to 000 than to 111 is called a Voronoi tile.

Now, let’s adapt these ideas to molecules. Consider the rotational states of a dumb-bell molecule consisting of two different atoms. (Let’s assume that we have frozen this molecule to the point that the vibration of the inter-atomic bond is limited, essentially creating a fixed distance between the two atoms.) This molecule can orient itself in any direction, and each such orientation can be represented as a point \mathbf{v} on the surface of a sphere. Now let us encode a classical bit using the north and south poles of this sphere (represented in the picture below as a black and a white ball, respectively). The north pole of the sphere corresponds to the molecule being parallel to the z-axis, while the south pole corresponds to the molecule being anti-parallel.

This time, the noise consists of small shifts in the molecule’s orientation. Clearly, if such shifts are small, the molecule just wiggles a bit around the z-axis. Such wiggles still allow us to infer that the molecule is (mostly) parallel and anti-parallel to the axis, as long as they do not rotate the molecule all the way past the equator. Upon such correctable rotations, the logical “0” state — the north pole — is mapped to a point in the northern hemisphere, while logical “1” — the south pole — is mapped to a point in the southern hemisphere. The northern hemisphere forms a Voronoi tile of the logical “0” state (blue in the picture), which, along with the corresponding tile of the logical “1” state (the southern hemisphere), tiles the entire sphere.

Quantum error correction

To upgrade these ideas to the quantum realm, recall that this time we have to protect superpositions. This means that, in addition to shifting our quantum logical state to other states as before, noise can also affect the terms in the superposition itself. Namely, if, say, the superposition is equal — with an amplitude of +1/\sqrt{2} in “0” and +1/\sqrt{2} in “1” — noise can change the relative sign of the superposition and map one of the amplitudes to -1/\sqrt{2}. We didn’t have to worry about such sign errors before, because our classical information would always be the definite state of “0” or “1”. Now, there are two effects of noise to worry about, so our task has become twice as hard!

Not to worry though. In order to protect against both sources of noise, all we need to do is effectively stagger the above constructions. Now we will need to design a logical “0” state which is itself a superposition of different points, with each point separated from all of the points that are superimposed to make the logical “1” state.

Diatomic molecules: For the diatomic molecule example, consider superpositions of all four corners of two antipodal tetrahedra for the two respective logical states.


The logical “0” state for the quantum code is now itself a quantum superposition of orientations of our diatomic molecule corresponding to the four black points on the sphere to the left (the sphere to the right is a top-down view). Similarly, the logical “1” quantum state is a superposition of all orientations corresponding to the white points.

Each orientation (black or white point) present in our logical states rotates under fluctuations in the position of the molecule. However, the entire set of orientations for say logical “0” — the tetrahedron — rotates rigidly under such rotations. Therefore, the region from which we can successfully recover after rotations is fully determined by the Voronoi tile of any one of the corners of the tetrahedron. (Above, we plot the tile for the point at the north pole.) This cell is clearly smaller than the one for classical north-south-pole encoding we used before. However, the tetrahedral code now provides some protection against phase errors — the other type of noise that we need to worry about if we are to protect quantum information. This is an example of the trade-off we must make in order to protect against both types of noise; a licensed quantum mechanic has to live with such trade-offs every day.

Oscillators: Another example of a quantum encoding is the GKP encoding in the phase space of the harmonic oscillator. Here, we have at our disposal the entire two-dimensional plane indexing different values of position and momentum. In this case, we can use a checkerboard approach, superimposing all points at the centers of the black squares for the logical “0” state, and similarly all points at the centers of the white squares for the logical “1”. The region depicting correctable momentum and position shifts is then the Voronoi cell of the point at the origin: if a shift takes our central black point to somewhere inside the blue square, we know (most likely) where that point came from! In solid state circles, the blue square is none other than the primitive or unit cell of the lattice consisting of points making up both of the logical states.

Asymmetric molecules (a.k.a. rigid rotors): Now let’s briefly return to molecules. Above, we considered diatomic molecules that had a symmetry axis, i.e., that were left unchanged under rotations about the axis that connects the two atoms. There are of course more general molecules out there, including ones that are completely asymmetric under any possible (proper) 3D rotation (see figure below for an example).

mol-f0 - blog

BONUS: There is a subtle mistake relating to the geometry of the rotation group in the labeling of this figure. Let me know if you can find it in the comments!

All of the orientations of the asymmetric molecule, and more generally a rigid body, can no longer be parameterized by the sphere. They can be parameterized by the 3D rotation group \mathsf{SO}(3): each orientation of an asymmetric molecule is labeled by the 3D rotation necessary to obtain said orientation from a reference state. Such rotations, and in turn the orientations themselves, are parameterized by an axis \mathbf{v} (around which to rotate) and an angle \omega (by which one rotates). The rotation group \mathsf{SO}(3) luckily can still be viewed by humans on a sheet of paper. Namely, \mathsf{SO}(3) can be thought of as a ball of radius \pi with opposite points identified. The direction of each vector \omega\mathbf{v} lying inside the ball corresponds to the axis of rotation, while the length corresponds to the angle. This may take some time to digest, but it’s not crucial to the story.

So far we’ve looked at codes defined on cubes of bits, spheres, and phase-space lattices. Turns out that even \mathsf{SO}(3) can house similar encodings! In other words, \mathsf{SO}(3) can also be cut up into different Voronoi tiles, which in turn can be staggered to create logical “0” and “1” states consisting of different molecular orientations. There are many ways to pick such states, corresponding to various subgroups of \mathsf{SO}(3). Below, we sketch two sets of black/white points, along with the Voronoi tile corresponding to the rotations that are corrected by each encoding.

Voronoi tiles of the black point at the center of the ball representing the 3D rotation group, for two different molecular codes. This and the Voronoi cells corresponding to the other points tile together to make up the entire ball. 3D printing all of these tiles would make for cool puzzles!

In closing…

Achieving supremacy was a big first step towards making quantum computing a practical and universal tool. However, the largest obstacles still await, namely handling superposition-poisoning noise coming from the ever-curious environment. As quantum technologies advance, other possible routes for error correction are by encoding qubits in harmonic oscillators and molecules, alongside the “traditional” approach of using arrays of physical qubits. Oscillator and molecular qubits possess their own mechanisms for error correction, and could prove useful (granted that the large high-energy space required for the procedures to work can be accessed and controlled). Even though molecular qubits are not yet mature enough to be used in quantum computers, we have at least outlined a blueprint for how some of the required pieces can be built. We are by no means done however: besides an engineering barrier, we need to further develop how to run robust computations on these exotic spaces.

Author’s note: I’d like to acknowledge Jose Gonzalez for helping me immensely with the writing of this post, as well as for drawing the comic panels in the previous post. The figures above were made possible by Mathematica 12.

On the Coattails of Quantum Supremacy

Most readers have by now heard that Google has “achieved” quantum “supremacy”. Notice the only word not in quotes is “quantum”, because unlike previous proposals that have also made some waves, quantumness is mostly not under review here. (Well, neither really are the other two words, but that story has already been covered quite eloquently by John, Scott, and Toby.) The Google team has managed to engineer a device that, although noisy, can do the right thing a large-enough fraction of the time for people to be able to “quantify its quantumness”.

However, the Google device, while less so than previous incarnations, is still noisy. Future devices like it will continue to be noisy. Noise is what makes quantum computers so darn difficult to build; it is what destroys the fragile quantum superpositions that we are trying so hard to protect (remember, unlike a classical computer, we are not protecting things we actually observe, but their superposition).

Protecting quantum information is like taking your home-schooled date (who has lived their entire life in a bunker) to the prom for the first time. It is a fun and necessary part of a healthy relationship to spend time in public, but the price you pay is the possibility that your date will hit it off with someone else. This will leave you abandoned, dancing alone to Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” while crying into your (spiked?) punch.

When the environment corrupts your quantum date.

The high school sweetheart/would-be dance partner in the above provocative example is the quantum superposition — the resource we need for a working quantum computer. You want it all to yourself, but your adversary — the environment — wants it too. No matter how much you try to protect it, you’ll have to observe it eventually (after all, you want to know the answer to your computation). And when you do (take your date out onto the crowded dance floor), you run the risk of the environment collapsing the information before you do, leaving you with nothing.

Protecting quantum information is also like (modern!) medicine. The fussy patient is the quantum information, stored in delicate superposition, while quantumists are the doctors aiming to prevent the patient from getting sick (or “corrupted”). If our patient incurs say “quasiparticle poisoning”, we first diagnose the patient’s syndromes, and, based on this diagnosis, apply procedures like “lattice surgery” and “state injection” to help our patient successfully recover.

The medical analogy to QEC, noticed first by Daniel Litinski. All terms are actually used in papers. Cartoon by Jose Gonzalez.

Error correction with qubits

Error correction sounds hard, and it should! Not to fear: plenty of very smart people have thought hard about this problem, and have come up with a plan — to redundantly encode the quantum superposition in a way that allows protection from errors caused by noise. Such quantum error-correction is an expansion of the techniques we currently use to protect classical bits in your phone and computer, but now the aim is to protect, not the definitive bit states 0 or 1, but their quantum superpositions. Things are even harder now, as the protection machinery has to do its magic without disturbing the superposition itself (after all, we want our quantum calculation to run to its conclusion and hack your bank).

For example, consider a qubit — the fundamental quantum unit represented by two shelves (which, e.g., could be the ground and excited states of an atom, the absence or presence of a photon in a box, or the zeroth and first quanta of a really cold LC circuit). This qubit can be in any quantum superposition of the two shelves, described by 2 probability amplitudes, one corresponding to each shelf. Observing this qubit will collapse its state onto either one of the shelves, changing the values of the 2 amplitudes. Since the resource we use for our computation is precisely this superposition, we definitely do not want to observe this qubit during our computation. However, we are not the only ones looking: the environment (other people at the prom: the trapping potential of our atom, the jiggling atoms of our metal box, nearby circuit elements) is also observing this system, thereby potentially manipulating the stored quantum state without our knowledge and ruining our computation.

Now consider 50 such qubits. Such a space allows for a superposition with 2^{50} different amplitudes (instead of just 2^1 for the case of a single qubit). We are once again plagued by noise coming from the environment. But what if we now, less ambitiously, want to store only one qubit’s worth of information in this 50-qubit system? Now there is room to play with! A clever choice of how to do this (a.k.a. the encoding) helps protect from the bad environment. 

The entire prospect of building a bona-fide quantum computer rests on this extra overhead or quantum redundancy of using a larger system to encode a smaller one. It sounds daunting at first: if we need 50 physical qubits for each robust logical qubit, then we’d need “I-love-you-3000” physical qubits for 60 logical ones? Yes, this is a fact we all have to live with. But granted we can scale up our devices to that many qubits, there is no fundamental obstacle that prevents us from then using error correction to make next-level computers.

To what extent do we need to protect our quantum superposition from the environment? It would be too ambitious to protect it from a meteor shower. Or a power outage (although that would be quite useful here in California). So what then can we protect against?

Our working answer is local noise — noise that affects only a few qubits that are located near each other in the device. We can never be truly certain if this type of noise is all that our quantum computers will encounter. However, our belief that this is the noise we should focus on is grounded in solid physical principles — that nature respects locality, that affecting things far away from you is harder than making an impact nearby. (So far Google has not reported otherwise, although much more work needs to be done to verify this intuition.)

The harmonic oscillator

In what other ways can we embed our two-shelf qubit into a larger space? Instead of scaling up using many physical qubits, we can utilize a fact that we have so far swept under the rug: in any physical system, our two shelves are already part of an entire bookcase! Atoms have more than one excited state, there can be more than one photon in a box, and there can be more than one quantum in a cold LC circuit. Why don’t we use some of that higher-energy space for our redundant encoding?

The noise in our bookcase will certainly be different, since the structure of the space, and therefore the notion of locality, is different. How to cope with this? The good news is that such a space — the space of the harmonic oscillator — also has a(t least one) natural notion of locality!

Whatever the incarnation, the oscillator has associated with it a position and momentum (different jargon for these quantities may be used, depending on the context, but you can just think of a child on a swing, just quantized). Anyone who knows the joke about Heisenberg getting pulled over, will know that these two quantities cannot be set simultaneously.

Cartoon by Jose Gonzalez.

Nevertheless, local errors can be thought of as small shifts in position or momentum, while nonlocal errors are ones that suddenly shift our bewildered swinging quantized child from one side of the swing to the other.

Armed with a local noise model, we can extend our know-how from multi-qubit land to the oscillator. One of the first such oscillator codes were developed by Gottesman, Kitaev, and Preskill (GKP). Proposed in 2001, GKP encodings posed a difficult engineering challenge: some believed that GKP states could never be realized, that they “did not exist”. In the past few years however, GKP states have been realized nearly simultaneously in two experimental platforms. (Food for thought for the non-believers!)

Parallel to GKP codes, another promising oscillator encoding using cat states is also being developed. This encoding has historically been far easier to create experimentally. It is so far the only experimental procedure achieving the break-even point, at which the actively protected logical information has the same lifetime as the system’s best unprotected degree of freedom.

Can we mix and match all of these different systems? Why yes! While Google is currently trying to build the surface code out of qubits, using oscillators (instead of qubits) for the surface code and encoding said oscillators either in GKP (see related IBM post) [1,2,3] or cat [4,5] codes is something people are seriously considering. There is even more overhead, but the extra information one gets from the correction procedure might make for a more fault-tolerant machine. With all of these different options being explored, it’s an exciting time to be into quantum!


It turns out there are still other systems we can consider, although because they are sufficiently more “out there” at the moment, I should first say “bear with me!” as I explain. Forget about atoms, photons in a box, and really cold LC circuits. Instead, consider a rigid 3-dimensional object whose center of mass has been pinned in such a way that the object can rotate any way it wants. Now, “quantize” it! In other words, consider the possibility of having quantum superpositions of different orientations of this object. Just like superpositions of a dead and alive cat, of a photon and no photon, the object can be in quantum superposition of oriented up, sideways, and down, for example. Superpositions of all possible orientations then make up our new configuration space (read: playground), and we are lucky that it too inherits many of the properties we know and love from its multi-qubit and oscillator cousins.

Examples of rigid bodies include airplanes (which can roll, pitch and yaw, even while “fixed” on a particular trajectory vector) and robot arms (which can rotate about multiple joints). Given that we’re not quantizing those (yet?), what rigid body should we have in mind as a serious candidate? Well, in parallel to the impressive engineering successes of the multi-qubit and oscillator paradigms, physicists and chemists have made substantial progress in trapping and cooling molecules. If a trapped molecule is cold enough, it’s vibrational and electronic states can be neglected, and its rotational states form exactly the rigid body we are interested in. Such rotational states, as far as we can tell, are not in the realm of Avengers-style science fiction.

Superpositions of molecular orientations don’t violate the Deutsch proposition.

The idea to use molecules for quantum computing dates all the way back to a 2001 paper by Dave DeMille, but in a recent paper by Jacob Covey, John Preskill, and myself, we propose a framework of how to utilize the large space of molecular orientations to protect against (you guessed it!) a type of local noise. In the second part of the story, called “Quantum Error Correction with Molecules“, I will cover a particular concept that is not only useful for a proper error-correcting code (classical and quantum), but also one that is quite fun to try and understand. The concept is based on a certain kind of tiling, called Voronoi tiles or Thiessen polygons, which can be used to tile anything from your bathroom floor to the space of molecular orientations. Stay tuned!

Putting back the pieces of a broken hologram

It is Monday afternoon and the day seems to be a productive one, if not yet quite memorable. As I revise some notes on my desk, Beni Yoshida walks into my office to remind me that the high-energy physics seminar is about to start. I hesitate, somewhat apprehensive of the near-certain frustration of being lost during the first few minutes of a talk in an unfamiliar field. I normally avoid such a situation, but in my email I find John’s forecast for an accessible talk by Daniel Harlow and a title with three words I can cling onto. “Quantum error correction” has driven my curiosity for the last seven years. The remaining acronyms in the title will become much more familiar in the four months to come.

Most of you are probably familiar with holograms, these shiny flat films representing a 3D object from essentially any desired angle. I find it quite remarkable how all the information of a 3D object can be printed on an essentially 2D film. True, the colors are not represented as faithfully as in a traditional photograph, but it looks as though we have taken a photograph from every possible angle! The speaker’s main message that day seemed even more provocative than the idea of holography itself. Even if the hologram is broken into pieces, and some of these are lost, we may still use the remaining pieces to recover parts of the 3D image or even the full thing given a sufficiently large portion of the hologram. The 3D object is not only recorded in 2D, it is recorded redundantly!

Left to right: Beni Yoshida, Aleksander Kubica, Aidan Chatwin-Davies and Fernando Pastawski discussing holographic codes.

Left to right: Beni Yoshida, Aleksander Kubica, Aidan Chatwin-Davies and Fernando Pastawski discussing holographic codes.

Half way through Daniel’s exposition, Beni and I exchange a knowing glance. We recognize a familiar pattern from our latest project. A pattern which has gained the moniker of “cleaning lemma” within the quantum information community which can be thought of as a quantitative analog of reconstructing the 3D image from pieces of the hologram. Daniel makes connections using a language that we are familiar with. Beni and I discuss what we have understood and how to make it more concrete as we stride back through campus. We scribble diagrams on the whiteboard and string words such as tensor, encoder, MERA and negative curvature into our discussion. An image from the web gives us some intuition on the latter. We are onto something. We have a model. It is simple. It is new. It is exciting.

Poincare projection of a regular pentagon tiling of negatively curved space.

Poincare projection of a regular pentagon tiling of negatively curved space.

Food has not come our way so we head to my apartment as we enthusiastically continue our discussion. I can only provide two avocados and some leftover pasta but that is not important, we are sharing the joy of insight. We arrange a meeting with Daniel to present our progress. By Wednesday Beni and I introduce the holographic pentagon code at the group meeting. A core for a new project is already there, but we need some help to navigate the high-energy waters. Who better to guide us in such an endeavor than our mentor, John Preskill, who recognized the importance of quantum information in Holography as early as 1999 and has repeatedly proven himself a master of both trades.

“I feel that the idea of holography has a strong whiff of entanglement—for we have seen that in a profoundly entangled state the amount of information stored locally in the microscopic degrees of freedom can be far less than we would naively expect. For example, in the case of the quantum error-correcting codes, the encoded information may occupy a small ‘global’ subspace of a much larger Hilbert space. Similarly, the distinct topological phases of a fractional quantum Hall system look alike locally in the bulk, but have distinguishable edge states at the boundary.”
-J. Preskill, 1999

As Beni puts it, the time for using modern quantum information tools in high-energy physics has come. By this he means quantum error correction and maybe tensor networks. First privately, then more openly, we continue to sharpen and shape our project. Through conferences, Skype calls and emails, we further our discussion and progressively shape ideas. Many speculations mature to conjectures and fall victim to counterexamples. Some stand the test of simulations or are even promoted to theorems by virtue of mathematical proofs.

Beni Yoshida presenting our work at a quantum entanglement conference in Puerto Rico.

Beni Yoshida presenting our work at a quantum entanglement conference in Puerto Rico.

I publicly present the project for the first time at a select quantum information conference in Australia. Two months later, after a particularly intense writing, revising and editing process, the article is almost complete. As we finalize the text and relabel the figures, Daniel and Beni unveil our work to quantum entanglement experts in Puerto Rico. The talks are a hit and it is time to let all our peers read about it.

You are invited to do so and Beni will even be serving a reader’s guide in an upcoming post.