A Masters project

In a previous post I reported on the beautiful recent result by Natarajan and Wright showing the astounding power of multi-prover interactive proofs with quantum provers sharing entanglement: in letters, {\text{NEEXP} \subseteq \text{MIP}^\star}. In this post I want to report on follow-up work with Ji, Natarajan, Wright, and Yuen, that we just posted to arXiv. This time however I will tell the story from a personal point of view, with all the caveats that this implies: the “hard science” will be limited (but there could be a hint as to how “science”, to use a big word, “progresses”, to use an ill-defined one), the story is far too long, and it might be mostly of interest to me only. It’s a one-sided story, but that has to be. (In particular below I may at times attribute credit in the form “X had this idea”. This is my recollection only, and it is likely to be inaccurate. Certainly I am ignoring a lot of important threads.) I wrote this because I enjoyed recollecting some of the best moments in the story just as much as some the hardest; it is fun to look back and find meanings in ideas that initially appeared disconnected. Think of it as an example of how different lines of work can come together in unexpected ways; a case for open-ended research. It’s also an antidote against despair that I am preparing for myself: whenever I feel I’ve been stuck on a project for far too long, I’ll come back to this post and ask myself if it’s been 14 years yet — if not, then press on.

It likely comes as a surprise to me only that I am no longer fresh out of the cradle. My academic life started in earnest some 14 years ago, when in the Spring of 2006 I completed my Masters thesis in Computer Science under the supervision of Julia Kempe, at Orsay in France. I had met Julia the previous term: her class on quantum computing was, by far, the best-taught and most exciting course in the Masters program I was attending, and she had gotten me instantly hooked. Julia agreed to supervise my thesis, and suggested that I look into some interesting recent result by Stephanie Wehner that linked the study of entanglement and nonlocality in quantum mechanics to complexity-theoretic questions about interactive proof systems (specifically, this was Stephanie’s paper showing that {\text{XOR-MIP}^\star \subseteq \text{QIP}(2)}).

At the time the topic was very new. It had been initiated the previous year with a beautiful paper by Cleve et al. (that I have recommended to many a student since!). It was a perfect fit for me: the mathematical aspects of complexity theory and quantum computing connected to my undergraduate background, while the relative concreteness of quantum mechanics (it is a physical theory after all) spoke to my desire for real-world connection (not “impact” or even “application” — just “connection”). Once I got myself up to speed in the area (which consisted of three papers: the two I already mentioned, together with a paper by Kobayashi and Matsumoto where they studied interactive proofs with quantum messages), Julia suggested looking into the the “entangled-prover” class {\text{MIP}^\star} introduced in the aforementioned paper by Cleve et al. Nothing was known about this class! Nothing besides the trivial inclusion of single-prover interactive proofs, IP, and the containment in…ALL, the trivial class that contains all languages.
Yet the characterization MIP=NEXP of its classical counterpart by Babai et al. in the 1990s had led to one of the most productive lines of work in complexity of the past few decades, through the PCP theorem and its use from hardness of approximation to efficient cryptographic schemes. Surely, studying {\text{MIP}^\star} had to be a productive direction? In spite of its well-established connection to classical complexity theory, via the formalism of interactive proofs, this was a real gamble. The study of entanglement from the complexity-theoretic perspective was entirely new, and bound to be fraught with difficulty; very few results were available and the existing lines of works, from the foundations of nonlocality to more recent endeavors in device-independent cryptography, provided little other starting point than strong evidence that even the simplest examples came with many unanswered questions. But my mentor was fearless, and far from a novice in terms of defraying new areas, having done pioneering work in areas ranging from quantum random walks to Hamiltonian complexity through adiabatic computation. Surely this would lead to something?

It certainly did. More sleepless nights than papers, clearly, but then the opposite would only indicate dullness. Julia’s question led to far more unexpected consequences than I, or I believe she, could have imagined at the time. I am writing this post to celebrate, in a personal way, the latest step in 15 years of research by dozens of researchers: today my co-authors and I uploaded to the quant-ph arXiv what we consider a complete characterization of the power of entangled-prover interactive proof systems by proving the equality {\text{MIP}^\star = \text{RE}}, the class of all recursively enumerable languages (a complete problem for RE is the halting problem). Without goign too much into the result itself (if you’re interested, we have a long introduction waiting for you), and since this is a personal blog, I will continue on with some personal thoughts about the path that got us there.

When Julia & I started working on the question, our main source of inspiration were the results by Cleve et al. showing that the nonlocal correlations of entanglement had interesting consequences when seen through the lens of interactive proof systems in complexity theory. Since the EPR paper a lot of work in understanding entanglement had already been accomplished in the Physics community, most notably by Mermin, Peres, Bell, and more recently the works in device-indepent quantum cryptography by Acin, Pironio, Scarani and many others stimulated by Ekert’s proposal for quantum key distribution and Mayers and Yao’s idea for “device-independent cryptography”. By then we certainly knew that “spooky action-at-a-distance” did not entail any faster-than-light communication, and indeed was not really “action-at-a-distance” in the first place but merely “correlation-at-a-distance”. What Cleve et al. recognized is that these “spooky correlations-at-a-distance” were sufficiently special so as to not only give numerically different values in “Bell inequalities”, the tool invented by Bell to evidence nonlocality in quantum mechanics, but also have some potentially profound consequences in complexity theory. In particular, examples such as the “Magic Square game” demonstrated that enough correlation could be gained from entanglement so as to defeat basic proof systems whose soundness relied only on the absence of communication between the provers, an assumption that until then had been wrongly equated with the assumption that any computation performed by the provers could be modeled entirely locally. I think that the fallacy of this implicit assumption came as a surprise to complexity theorists, who may still not have entirely internalized it. Yet the perfect quantum strategy for the Magic Square game provides a very concrete “counter-example” to the soundness of the “clause-vs-variable” game for 3SAT. Indeed this game, a reformulation by Aravind and Cleve-Mermin of a Bell Inequality discovered by Mermin and Peres in 1990, can be easily re-framed as a 3SAT system of equations that is not satisfiable and yet is such that the associated two-player clause-vs-variable game has a perfect quantum strategy. It is this observation, made in the paper by Cleve et al., that gave the first strong hint that the use of entanglement in interactive proof systems could make many classical results in the area go awry.

By importing the study of non-locality into complexity theory Cleve et al. immediately brought it into the realm of asymptotic analysis. Complexity theorists don’t study fixed objects, they study families of objects that tend to have a uniform underlying structure and whose interesting properties manifest themselves “in the limit”. As a result of this new perspective focus shifted from the study of single games or correlations to infinite families thereof. Some of the early successes of this translation include the “unbounded violations” that arose from translating asymptotic separations in communication complexity to the language of Bell inequalities and correlations (e.g. this paper). These early successes attracted the attention of some physicists working in foundations as well as some mathematical physicists, leading to a productive exploration that combined tools from quantum information, functional analysis and complexity theory.

The initial observations made by Cleve et al. had pointed to {\text{MIP}^\star} as a possibly interesting complexity class to study. Rather amazingly, nothing was known about it! They had shown that under strong restrictions on the verifier’s predicate (it should be an XOR of two answer bits), a collapse took place: by the work of Hastad, XOR-MIP equals NEXP, but {\text{XOR-MIP}^\star} is included in EXP. This seemed very fortuitous (the inclusion is proved via a connection with semidefinite programming that seems tied to the structure of XOR-MIP protocols): could entanglement induce a collapse of the entire, unrestricted class? We thought (at this point mostly Julia thought, because I had no clue) that this ought not to be the case, and so we set ourselves to show that the equality {\text{MIP}^\star=\text{NEXP}}, that would directly parallel Babai et al.’s characterization MIP=NEXP, holds. We tried to show this by introducing techniques to “immunize” games against entanglement: modify an interactive proof system so that its structure makes it “resistant” to the kind of “nonlocal powers” that can be used to defeat the clause-vs-variable game (witness the Magic Square). This was partially successful, and led to one of the papers I am most proud of — I am proud of it because I think it introduced elementary techniques (such as the use of the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality — inside joke — more seriously, basic things such as “prover-switching”, “commutation tests”, etc.) that are now routine manipulations in the area. The paper was a hard sell! It’s good to remember the first rejections we received. They were not unjustified: the main point of criticism was that we were only able to establish a hardness result for exponentially small completeness-soundness gap. A result for such a small gap in the classical setting follows directly from a very elementary analysis based on the Cook-Levin theorem. So then why did we have to write so many pages (and so many applications of Cauchy-Schwarz!) to arrive at basically the same result (with a {^\star})?

Eventually we got lucky and the paper was accepted to a conference. But the real problem, of establishing any non-trivial lower bound on the class {\text{MIP}^\star} with constant (or, in the absence of any parallel repetition theorem, inverse-polynomial) completeness-soundness gap, remained. By that time I had transitioned from a Masters student in France to a graduate student in Berkeley, and the problem (pre-)occupied me during some of the most difficult years of my Ph.D. I fully remember spending my first year entirely thinking about this (oh and sure, that systems class I had to pass to satisfy the Berkeley requirements), and then my second year — yet, getting nowhere. (I checked the arXiv to make sure I’m not making this up: two full years, no posts.) I am forever grateful to my fellow student Anindya De for having taken me out of the cycle of torture by knocking on my door with one of the most interesting questions I have studied, that led me into quantum cryptography and quickly resulted in an enjoyable paper. It was good to feel productive again! (Though the paper had fun reactions as well: after putting it on the arXiv we quickly heard from experts in the area that we had solved an irrelevant problem, and that we better learn about information theory — which we did, eventually leading to another paper, etc.) The project had distracted me and I set interactive proofs aside; clearly, I was stuck.

About a year later I visited IQC in Waterloo. I don’t remember in what context the visit took place. What I do remember is a meeting in the office of Tsuyoshi Ito, at the time a postdoctoral scholar at IQC. Tsuyoshi asked me to explain our result with Julia. He then asked a very pointed question: the bedrock for the classical analysis of interactive proof systems is the “linearity test” of Blum-Luby-Rubinfeld (BLR). Is there any sense in which we could devise a quantum version of that test?

What a question! This was great. At first it seemed fruitless: in what sense could one argue that quantum provers apply a “linear function”? Sure, quantum mechanics is linear, but that is besides the point. The linearity is a property of the prover’s answers as a function of their question. So what to make of the quantum state, the inherent randomness, etc.?

It took us a few months to figure it out. Once we got there however, the answer was relatively simple — the prover should be making a question-independent measurement that returns a linear function that it applies to its question in order to obtain the answer returned to the verifier — and it opened the path to our subsequent paper showing that the inclusion of NEXP in {\text{MIP}^\star} indeed holds. Tsuyoshi’s question about linearity testing had allowed us to make the connection with PCP techniques; from there to MIP=NEXP there was only one step to make, which is to analyze multi-linearity testing. That step was suggested by my Ph.D. advisor, Umesh Vazirani, who was well aware of the many pathways towards the classical PCP theorem (indeed a lot of the activity that led to the proof of the theorem took place in Berkeley, with many of Umesh’s current or former students making substantial contributions). It took a lot of technical work, yet conceptually a single question from my co-author had sufficed to take me out of a 3-year slumber.

This was in 2012, and I thought we were done. For some reason the converse inclusion, of {\text{MIP}^\star} in NEXP, seemed to resist our efforts, but surely it couldn’t resist much longer. Navascues et al. had introduced a hierarchy of semidefinite programs that seemed to give the right answer (technically they could only show convergence to a relaxation, the commuting value, but that seemed like a technicality; in particular, the values coincide when restricted to finite-dimensional strategies, which is all we computer scientists cared about). There were no convergence bounds on the hierarchy, yet at the same time commutative SDP hierarchies were being used to obtain very strong results in combinatorial optimization, and it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before someone came up with an analysis of the quantum case. (I had been trying to solve a related “dimension reduction problem” with Oded Regev for years, and we were making no progress; yet it seemed someone ought to!)

In Spring 2014 during an open questions session at a workshop at the Simons Institute in Berkeley Dorit Aharonov suggested that I ask the question of the possible inclusion of QMA-EXP, the exponential-sized-proofs analogue of QMA, in {\text{MIP}^\star}. A stronger result than the inclusion of NEXP (under assumptions), wouldn’t it be a more natural “fully quantum” analogue of MIP=NEXP? Dorit’s suggestion was motivated by research on the “quantum PCP theorem”, that aims to establish similar hardness results in the realm of the local Hamiltonian problem; see e.g. this post for the connection. I had no idea how to approach the question — I also didn’t really believe the answer could be positive — but what can you do, if Dorit asks you something… So I reluctantly went to the board and asked the question. Joe Fitzsimons was in the audience, and he immediately picked it up! Joe had the fantastic ideas of using quantum error-correction, or more specifically secret-sharing, to distribute a quantum proof among the provers. His enthusiasm overcame my skepticism, and we eventually showed the desired inclusion. Maybe {\text{MIP}^\star} was bigger than {\text{NEXP}} after all.

Our result, however, had a similar deficiency as the one with Julia, in that the completeness-soundness gap was exponentially small. Obtaining a result with a constant gap took 3 years of couple more years of work and the fantastic energy and insights of a Ph.D. student at MIT, Anand Natarajan. Anand is the first person I know of to have had the courage to dive in to the most technical aspects of the analysis of the aforementioned results, while also bringing in the insights of a “true quantum information theorist” that were supported by Anand’s background in Physics and upbringing in the group of Aram Harrow at MIT. (In contrast I think of myself more as a “raw” mathematician; I don’t really understand quantum states other than as psd matrices…not that I understand math either of course; I suppose I’m some kind of a half-baked mish-mash.) Anand had many ideas but one of the most beautiful ones led to what he poetically called the “Pauli braiding test”, a “truly quantum” analogue of the BLR linearity test that amounts to doing two linearity tests in conjugate bases and piecing the results together into a robust test for {n}-qubit entanglement (I wrote about our work on this here).

At approximately the same time Zhengfeng Ji had another wonderful idea, that was in some sense orthogonal to our work. (My interpretation of) Zhengfeng’s idea is that one can see an interactive proof system as a computation (verifier-prover-verifier) and use Kitaev’s circuit-to-Hamiltonian construction to transform the entire computation into a “quantum CSP” (in the same sense that the local Hamiltonian problem is a quantum analogue of classical constraint satisfaction problems (CSP)) that could then itself be verified by a quantum multi-prover interactive proof system…with exponential gains in efficiency! Zhengfeng’s result implied an exponential improvement in complexity compared to the result by Julia and myself, showing inclusion of NEEXP, instead of NEXP, in {\text{MIP}^\star}. However, Zhengfeng’s technique suffered from the same exponentially small completeness-soundness gap as we had, so that the best lower bound on {\text{MIP}^\star} per se remained NEXP.

Both works led to follow-ups. With Natarajan we promoted the Pauli braiding test into a “quantum low-degree test” that allowed us to show the inclusion of QMA-EXP into {\text{MIP}^\star}, with constant gap, thereby finally answering the question posed by Aharonov 4 years after it was asked. (I should also say that by then all results on {\text{MIP}^\star} started relying on a sequence of parallel repetition results shown by Bavarian, Yuen, and others; I am skipping this part.) In parallel, with Ji, Fitzsimons, and Yuen we showed that Ji’s compression technique could be “iterated” an arbitrary number of times. In fact, by going back to “first principles” and representing verifiers uniformly as Turing machines we realized that the compression technique could be used iteratively to (up to small caveats) give a new proof of the fact (first shown by Slofstra using an embedding theorem for finitely presented group) that the zero-gap version of {\text{MIP}^\star} contains the halting problem. In particular, the entangled value is uncomputable! This was not the first time that uncomputability crops in to a natural problem in quantum computing (e.g. the spectral gap paper), yet it still surprises when it shows up. Uncomputable! How can anything be uncomputable!

As we were wrapping up our paper Henry Yuen realized that our “iterated compression of interactive proof systems” was likely optimal, in the following sense. Even a mild improvement of the technique, in the form of a slower closing of the completeness-soundness gap through compression, would yield a much stronger result: undecidability of the constant-gap class {\text{MIP}^\star}. It was already known by work of Navascues et al., Fritz, and others, that such a result would have, if not surprising, certainly consequences that seemed like they would be taking us out of our depth. In particular, undecidability of any language in {\text{MIP}^\star} would imply a negative resolution to a series of equivalent conjectures in functional analysis, from Tsirelson’s problem to Connes’ Embedding Conjecture through Kirchberg’s QWEP conjecture. While we liked our result, I don’t think that we believed it could resolve any conjecture(s) in functional analysis.

So we moved on. At least I moved on, I did some cryptography for a change. But Anand Natarajan and his co-author John Wright did not stop there. They had the last major insight in this story, which underlies their recent STOC best paper described in the previous post. Briefly, they were able to combine the two lines of work, by Natarajan & myself on low-degree testing and by Ji et al. on compression, to obtain a compression that is specially tailored to the existing {\text{MIP}^\star} protocol for NEXP and compresses that protocol without reducing its completeness-soundness gap. This then let them show Ji’s result that {\text{MIP}^\star} contains NEEXP, but this time with constant gap! The result received well-deserved attention. In particular, it is the first in this line of works to not suffer from any caveats (such as a closing gap, or randomized reductions, or some kind of “unfair” tweak on the model that one could attribute the gain in power to), and it implies an unconditional separation between MIP and {\text{MIP}^\star}.

As they were putting the last touches on their result, suddenly something happened, which is that a path towards a much bigger result opened up. What Natarajan & Wright had achieved is a one-step gapless compression. In our iterated compression paper we had observed that iterated gapless compression would lead to {\text{MIP}^\star=\text{RE}}, implying negative answers to the aforementioned conjectures. So then?

I suppose it took some more work, but in some way all the ideas had been laid out in the previous 15 years of work in the complexity of quantum interactive proof systems; we just had to put it together. And so a decade after the characterization QIP = PSPACE of single-prover quantum interactive proof systems, we have arrived at a characterization of quantum multiprover interactive proof systems, {\text{MIP}^\star = \text{RE}}. With one author in common between the two papers: congratulations Zhengfeng!

Even though we just posted a paper, in a sense there is much more left to do. I am hopeful that our complexity-theoretic result will attract enough interest from the mathematicians’ community, and especially operator algebraists, for whom CEP is a central problem, that some of them will be willing to devote time to understanding the result. I also recognize that much effort is needed on our own side to make it accessible in the first place! I don’t doubt that eventually complexity theory will not be needed to obtain the purely mathematical consequences; yet I am hopeful that some of the ideas may eventually find their way into the construction of interesting mathematical objects (such as, who knows, a non-hyperlinear group).

That was a good Masters project…thanks Julia!

About Thomas

I am a professor in the department of Computing and Mathematical Sciences (CMS) at the California Institute of Technology, where I am also a member of the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (IQIM). My research is in quantum complexity theory and cryptography.
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28 Responses to A Masters project

  1. Congratulations Zhengfeng, Anand, Thomas, John, and Henry!

  2. Deeparnab Chakrabarty says:

    Lovely story! And congratulations to all of you 🙂

  3. NG says:

    After Kadison–Singer, this is the second major problem for operator algebra solved by TCS folks. Is there a third?

  4. Gil Kalai says:

    Congratulations, Zhengfeng, Anand, Thomas, John, and Henry and to all earlier contributors and to Stephanie and Julia. This is a lovely and quite an amazing story.

  5. Pingback: MIP*=RE, Connes embedding conjecture disproved | Windows On Theory

  6. Boaz Barak says:

    Congratulations! I am still trying to wrap my head around it – it’s so natural to conjecture the opposing conclusion – but this is just an amazing result!

  7. fernando says:

    Congratulations Thomas, and Zhengfeng, Anand, John, and Henry! It’s a really amazing result!

  8. Debbie Leung says:

    Congratulations to all the authors on obtaining such a wonderful set of results ! And thanks to Thomas for sharing this inspiring story.

  9. Pingback: Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » MIP*=RE

  10. Tobias Fritz says:

    Wow! Another congratulations, and thanks for sharing that story!

  11. bentoner says:

    Congratulations Thomas and co-authors!

  12. anthonyleverrier says:

    Congratulations to all of you!

  13. Vinod says:

    Wow! What an amazing story and what an amazing result. Congratulations!

  14. Thomas says:

    Thanks everyone for the generous comments (again, writing this on behalf of all authors!).
    For those interested in the more scientific aspects, let me point out there is a nice discussion in the comments on the blog of Scott Aaronson: https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=4512 (I realize everyone who sees this already saw that too, but just in case :))

  15. Dorit says:

    Wow, what a story, Thomas! and what an achievement! Congratulations and Thank you, as well as
    Zhengfeng, Anand, John, Henry – and all other participants in this amazing story – for making the quantum community so proud!

  16. Attila Pereszlényi says:

    Jaw dropping result, congratulations to the authors!

  17. Yoav Ben-Dov says:

    Thomas this is amazing! I’m gobsmacked by this result, and the story in this post is very motivating.
    It was a pleasure meeting you at the Quantum Winter school a few weeks ago.
    Well done! Very inspiring

  18. Marc Kaplan says:

    Thanks for the story and thanks for the result! Great gift to the whole QI community and beyond.
    It was a pleasure to witness your progress on this question during all this time, from our first conversations in Orsay and Delhi, a long time ago. Thanks for your patient explanations.

  19. Fernando Granha Jeronimo says:

    Wonderful result(s) and very exciting history. Congratulations!

  20. Brigitte Collard says:

    Seeing the full image I now understand better why you are (and always were) so passionate about your work. Those 15 years are like a thriller, looking for something,getting somewhere or nowhere, moving further but not quite to the right place, going back sometimes and finally, finally placing the last piece of the puzzle . Which will (no doubt about it) lead you to a new unsolvable problem for the next 15 years.
    I am proud of you and happy that all those bright minds crossed your path, each opening a door to a new exiting research. That’s what I call entanglement !
    Congratulation to all of you.

  21. Dima says:

    There is equivalences proved by Klep and Schweighofer (with later corrections by more people) between Connes Embedding Conjecture and existence of certain decompositions of “positive polynomials in matrix variables” (arxiv.org/abs/math/0607615, fmf.uni-lj.si/~klep/rcec-19jul13.pdf), which are sort of “pure algebra”. It would also be interesting to know what kind of said “positive polynomials” arise from your result that do not admit these decompositions.

    • Dima says:

      Actually as you cite Ozawa https://arxiv.org/abs/1212.1700 you probably worked on this already.

      • Thomas says:

        Thanks for the suggestion! I am aware of the connection, but I haven’t looked at it in depth. If I am to make a guess, it would roughly come by observing that the separating example that we give, which has entangled value <1/2 but commuting value 1, corresponds to a positive bilinear polynomial for which the kind of certificate studied in the KS paper does not exist. (I'm saying this very loosely though, it'll be interesting to look at it more closely.)

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