Posted on January 29, 2023, by Nicole Yunger Halpern

Early in the fourth year of my PhD, I received a most John-ish email from John Preskill, my PhD advisor. The title read, “thermodynamics of complexity,” and the message was concise the way that the Amazon River is damp: “Might be an interesting subject for you.” Below the signature, I found a paper draft by Stanford physicists Adam Brown and Lenny Susskind. Adam is a Brit with an accent and a wit to match his Oxford degree. Lenny, known to the public for his books and lectures, is a New Yorker with an accent that reminds me of my grandfather. Before the physicists posted their paper online, Lenny sought feedback from John, who forwarded me the email.

The paper concerned a confluence of ideas that you’ve probably encountered in the media: string theory, black holes, and quantum information. String theory offers hope for unifying two physical theories: relativity, which describes large systems such as our universe, and quantum theory, which describes small systems such as atoms. A certain type of gravitational system and a certain type of quantum system participate in a duality, or equivalence, known since the 1990s. Our universe isn’t such a gravitational system, but never mind; the duality may still offer a toehold on a theory of quantum gravity. Properties of the gravitational system parallel properties of the quantum system and vice versa. Or so it seemed. The gravitational system can have two black holes linked by a wormhole. The wormhole’s volume can grow linearly in time for a time exponentially long in the black holes’ entropy. Afterwards, the volume hits a ceiling and approximately ceases changing. Which property of the quantum system does the wormhole’s volume parallel?

Envision the quantum system as many particles wedged close together so that they interact with each other strongly. Initially, uncorrelated particles will entangle with each other quickly. A quantum system has properties, such as average particle density, that experimentalists can measure relatively easily. Does such a measurable property—an observable of a small patch of the system—parallel the wormhole volume? No; such observables cease changing much sooner than the wormhole volume does. The same conclusion applies to the entanglement amongst the particles. What about a more sophisticated property of the particles’ quantum state? Researchers proposed that the state’s complexity parallels the wormhole’s volume. To grasp complexity, imagine a quantum computer performing a computation. When performing computations in math class, you needed blank scratch paper on which to write your calculations. A quantum computer needs the quantum equivalent of blank scratch paper: qubits (basic units of quantum information, realized, for example, as atoms) in a simple, unentangled, “clean” state. The computer performs a sequence of basic operations—quantum logic gates—on the qubits. These operations resemble addition and subtraction but can entangle the qubits. What’s the minimal number of basic operations needed to prepare a desired quantum state (or to “uncompute” a given state to the blank state)? The state’s quantum complexity.1

Quantum complexity has loomed large over multiple fields of physics recently: quantum computing, condensed matter, and quantum gravity. The latter, we established, entails a duality between a gravitational system and a quantum system. The quantum system begins in a simple quantum state that grows complicated as the particles interact. The state’s complexity parallels the volume of a wormhole in the gravitational system, according to a conjecture.2 The conjecture would hold more water if the quantum state’s complexity grew similarly to the wormhole’s volume: linearly in time, for a time exponentially large in the quantum system’s size. Does the complexity grow so? The expectation is that it does become the linear-growth conjecture.

Evidence supported the conjecture. For instance, quantum information theorists modelled the quantum particles as interacting randomly, as though undergoing a quantum circuit filled with random quantum gates. Leveraging probability theory,3 the researchers proved that the state’s complexity grows linearly at short times. Also, the complexity grows linearly for a long time if each particle can store a great deal of quantum information. But what if the particles are qubits, the smallest and most ubiquitous unit of quantum information? The question lingered for years. Jonas Haferkamp, a PhD student in Berlin, dreamed up an answer to an important version of the question.4 I had the good fortune to help formalize that answer with him and members of his research group: master’s student Teja Kothakonda, postdoc Philippe Faist, and supervisor Jens Eisert. Our paper, published in Nature Physics last year, marked step one in a research adventure catalyzed by John Preskill’s email 4.5 years earlier. Imagine, again, qubits undergoing a circuit filled with random quantum gates. That circuit has some architecture, or arrangement of gates. Slotting different gates into the architecture effects different transformations5 on the qubits. Consider the set of all transformations implementable with one architecture. This set has some size, which we defined and analyzed. What happens to the set’s size if you add more gates to the circuit—let the particles interact for longer? We can bound the size’s growth using the mathematical toolkits of algebraic geometry and differential topology. Upon bounding the size’s growth, we can bound the state’s complexity. The complexity, we concluded, grows linearly in time for a time exponentially long in the number of qubits.

Our result lends weight to the complexity-equals-volume hypothesis. The result also introduces algebraic geometry and differential topology into complexity as helpful mathematical toolkits. Finally, the set size that we bounded emerged as a useful concept that may elucidate circuit analyses and machine learning. John didn’t have machine learning in mind when forwarding me an email in 2017. He didn’t even have in mind proving the linear-growth conjecture. The proof enables step two of the research adventure catalyzed by that email: thermodynamics of quantum complexity, as the email’s title stated. I’ll cover that thermodynamics in its own blog post. The simplest of messages can spin a complex legacy.

The links provided above scarcely scratch the surface of the quantum-complexity literature; for a more complete list, see our paper’s bibliography. For a seminar about the linear-growth paper, see this video hosted by Nima Lashkari’s research group. 1The term complexity has multiple meanings; forget the rest for the purposes of this article.

2According to another conjecture, the quantum state’s complexity parallels a certain space-time region’s action. (An action, in physics, isn’t a motion or a deed or something that Hamlet keeps avoiding. An action is a mathematical object that determines how a system can and can’t change in time.) The first two conjectures snowballed into a paper entitled “Does complexity equal anything?” Whatever it parallels, complexity plays an important role in the gravitational–quantum duality. 3Experts: Such as unitary -designs. 4Experts: Our work concerns quantum circuits, rather than evolutions under fixed Hamiltonians. Also, our work concerns exact circuit complexity, the minimal number of gates needed to prepare a state exactly. A natural but tricky extension eluded us: approximate circuit complexity, the minimal number of gates needed to approximate the state. 5Experts: Unitary operators.