Classical vs Quantum Computation

by Eddie Schoute

The IBM ThinkQ conference was held recently in New York with a focus on near-term quantum computing applications. It seems that businesses have successfully been developing larger quantum computers —we’re at around 50 qubits now!— but are now looking for the “killer app” of small quantum computers. There were some variations on the “what to do with your quantum computer” theme and I will talk about some of the applications that were discussed.

All talks and recordings of them are available at the online schedule.

A quantum advantage refers to some applications where a quantum computer performs some computation that a classical computer currently cannot perform. Previously known as quantum supremacy, it has now been renamed after an internal discussion within the community about its political correctness1.

So far we actually do not know unconditionally if quantum computing is actually more powerful than classical (i.e. $BQP \not\subseteq BPP$). But through the problems of Boson Sampling2 and Instantaneous Quantum Polynomial-time (IQP) circuits3 we do know that the polynomial hierarchy ($PH$) must collapse if classical computers can solve them efficiently.

Simulating Quantum Processes

One side of the discussion looks at determining which quantum processes can be efficiently simulated by a classical computer. We recently had Hakop Pashayan visit QuICS, who revealed to us some of the intricacies involved in this line of research. In their paper, Hakop et al. explain the concept of ε-simulation4. For any quantum circuit $\mathcal C$ with fixed inputs there exists some probability distribution $\mathcal P_\mathcal C$ over the outcomes $X=(X_1, X_2, …, X_k)$, which is just a classical random variable. Any noiseless circuit $\mathcal C$ can be described as starting with the product state $ρ_1 ⊗ … ⊗ ρ_n$ on $n$ qubits, followed by some unitary operation $U$, and finally measuring qubits $1$ through $k$.

For example, one could ask the question what is the probability of measuring $(X_0, X_1) = (1,0)$ ignoring $X_2,…X_k$? Or in other words, what is $\mathcal P(X_0 = 1, X_1 = 0)$? An algorithm that can produce the answer to this (and similar) questions is called a strong simulator. This is quite a powerful notion since it is more powerful than a theoretical quantum computer which can only produce a sample from the output distribution. A slightly weaker notion is that of weak simulation: Instead of the exact probability, output a sample in accordance with the output distribution $\mathcal P_\mathcal C$. Even constructing a weak simulator is probably too lofty of a goal, because no real quantum computer will be completely noiseless and thus cannot sample exactly from $\mathcal P_\mathcal C$. It is therefore maybe unreasonable to expect a classical computer to do either of these (except for simple circuits) and we will instead define ε-simulation that relaxes the constraints further.

A general quantum circuit
A general quantum circuit, with $n$ product state inputs, a unitary evolution, and then measurements on $k$ of the qubits.


Hakop et al. deal with the notion of ε-simulation, which allows the simulator to make some ε-sized error in the $\ell_1$ distance.

Definition: $\ell_1$ norm and distance for vectors
For a vector $\mathbf v$ the $\ell_1$ norm is defined as

The $\ell_1$ distance between two discrete probability distributions $\mathcal P$ and $\mathcal Q$ (that are just vectors in some respects) is then

which just takes the absolute vector difference of the two probability distributions. (This notion also generalises to other norms, such as the $\ell_2$ norm and $\ell_\infty$ norm.)

Definition: ε-sampling 4
Let $\mathcal P$ be a discrete probability distribution. We say that an algorithm can ε-sample $\mathcal P$ iff for any $ε>0$ it can sample from a probability distribution $P^ε$ such that $\norm{\mathcal P - \mathcal P^ε}_1 ≤ ε$. In addition, its run-time should scale polynomially in $1/ε$.

We say that an algorithm can ε-simulate a quantum circuit $\mathcal C$ if it can ε-sample from the associated probability distribution $\mathcal P_\mathcal C$. Basically, an ε-simulator is a weak simulator of a probability distribution that is ε-close to the real probability distribution. A result of Hakop et al.4 is that an ε-simulator of $\mathcal C$ is indistinguishable from $\mathcal C$ and also is efficient due to the polynomial run-time constraints. Not only that, but it is also necessary to be an ε-simulator for any kind of simulation scheme to be efficient and indistinguishable from $\mathcal C$5.

Poly-Boxes and Simulations

To be able to ε-simulate a circuit $\mathcal C$ we can first estimate the probabilities for some outcomes of its output probability distribution $\mathcal P_\mathcal C$. A poly-box is a metaphorical device that estimates such probabilities in polynomial time. It is (presumably) not possible to efficiently estimate probabilities for general quantum circuits using a classical computer, but it may be possible to construct poly-boxes for certain restricted circuit families.

Definition: Poly-box
Given is a finite alphabet $\Sigma$; let $\Sigma^*$ be strings of characters from $\Sigma$ (including the empty string). Then $\Sigma^*$ defines a family of quantum circuits $\mathbb S = \set{\mathcal C_a \middle| a ∈ Σ^*}$. The associated family of probability distributions is $\mathbb P = \set{\mathcal P_\mathcal C \middle| \mathcal C ∈ \mathbb S}$.
We want to be able to estimate probabilities for output strings $S ∈ \set{0,1,\bullet}^{n+1}$ with a “$\bullet$” meaning “don’t care”: Match both $0$ and $1$. Then a poly-box is a classical algorithm that can estimate $\mathcal P(S)$ for all $\mathcal P ∈ \mathbb P$ efficiently in the number of qubits, $n$, and the inverse error, $ε^{-1}$.

What does a polybox do
With a poly-box we are able to estimate the probability of outcomes for a quantum circuit in polynomial time. Additionally, we can estimate marginal probabilities for all strings $S ∈ \set{0,1,\bullet}^{n+1}$ where “$\bullet$” can represents a “don’t care”: It matches both $0$ and $1$. The number of samples $s∈ℕ$ can be computed from the intended error $ε$.

Poly-boxes are not sufficient for ε-simulation. A counter-example.

Circuit families must admit a poly-box to be ε-simulable, but it is not sufficient. We will give a fairly simple example of a circuit that does admit a poly-box but does not admit an ε-simulator (unless $BQP ⊆ BPP$). Let us define a circuit $\mathcal C_e$ that takes in some quantum circuit description $a ∈ Σ^*$. The circuit $\mathcal C_e$ samples a single bit $X$ from the quantum circuit described by $a$, $\mathcal C_a$. (Note that for general quantum circuits it is already hard to efficiently produce this single bit classically, assuming $BPP ⊊ BQP$) Finally, $\mathcal C_e$ samples a uniform string $Y ∈ \set{0,1}^n$ and outputs $(X ⊕ \text{Parity}(Y), Y) ∈ \set{0,1}^{n+1}$.6 Basically, we are obfuscating the hard-to-produce $X$ with a uniform $Y$, but given the entire output it is easy to figure out $X$. (Compute Parity$(Y)$ and XOR that together with the first output bit.)

The real kicker, however, is that $C_e$ is not ε-simulable because if it were then it would be possible to sample $X$ (and that’s hard). But it is actually easy to construct a poly-box for $C_e$ for any given error $0<ε≤1$:

  1. If there are $0<k≤n+1$ “don’t cares” in the string $S ∈ \set{0,1,\bullet}^{n+1}$ for which we need to estimate the probability $\mathcal P(S)$ then output $1/2^{n+1-k}$ as a guess.
  2. Otherwise, if $ε < 1/2^n$, explicitly compute the probability $P(X=1)$ by brute force. This will take time $O(2^n) ⊆ O(ε^{-1})$ so it is still efficient in $ε^{-1}$.
  3. Large ε: if $ε ≥ 1/2^n$ simply output the probability $1/2^{n+1}$ as a guess.

Now, through some straightforward computation, you can show that, in all three cases, this does meet the requirements of a poly-box, as it is sufficiently close to the real $P(S)$. The problem here is that we have thinned the probability of any one string occurring so much that, for a sufficiently low error ε, it becomes easier to compute the quantum probability explicitly.

Poly-boxes + sparsity = ε-simulation

If, instead, the circuit has only a polynomial number of outcomes with significant probability then we can ε-simulate like we would want to. We say that such outcome distributions are poly-sparse. More specifically, there must be a polynomially-sized upper bound on the number of relevant outcomes, $t = O\left(\text{poly}(n/ε)\right)$, with $n$ the size of the input string and $ε$ the error. Poly-sparsity guarantees us that there exists a parameter $t$, so that we can construct a distribution $\mathcal P^ε$ with only $t$ outcomes with non-zero probabilty such that

Epsilon-close probability distribution
On the left is some probability distribution $\mathcal P$. On the right we have approximated $\mathcal P$ by an ε-close distribution that is sparser: We have fewer nonzero entries.

We can estimate the $t$ relevant outcomes with a poly-box for $\mathcal C$ and explicitly reconstruct $\mathcal P^ε$. This distribution $\mathcal P^ε$ is ε-close to the real output distribution $\mathcal P_{\mathcal C}$ and thus suffices for ε-simulation of $\mathcal C$.

Theorem 14 : “Let $\mathcal C$ be a family of quantum circuits with corresponding probability distributions $\mathbb P$. Supose there exists an efficient poly-box over $\mathcal C$, and $\mathbb P$ is poly-sparse. Then, there exists an ε-simulator of $\mathcal C$.”

Proof: Let $a \in \Sigma^*$ and $ε > 0$. The poly-box over the circuit family $\mathcal C$ allows us to efficiently estimate probabilities from the probability distribution $P_a(S)$ for $S \in \set{0,1,\bullet}^n$. Using the poly-box construction above and some smart searching using “don’t care” values (“$\bullet$”), it is possible to efficiently estimate probabilities from the ε-close (in $\ell_1$ distance) distribution $P^ε_a(S)$. And because of poly-sparsity of $\mathcal C$ there exists a $P^ε_a$ with a polynomial upper bound $t = O\left(\text{poly}(ε^{-1})\right)$ on relevant outputs. So we construct an ε-simulator for $\mathcal C$ by reconstructing the probability distribution over the $t$ possible outcomes in the poly-sparse $P^ε_a$. We can do this by recursively searching $S$ using “don’t cares” for the $t$ relevant outcomes (the rest has probability mass $0$) in polynomial time7. With $P^ε_a$ explicitly computed it is straightforward to sample from it.$\square$

Separating Quantum from Classical

A natural question to ask after looking at simulating quantum processes is what can’t we simulate? Where is there a quantum advantage? Recently there has been a lot of work on trying to come up with such an algorithm that is believed to be both hard to simulate classically (e.g. by some complexity results) and also easy to implement on an existing quantum computer. We will look at Instantaneous Quantum Polynomial-time (IQP)3, but there is multitude of approaches that may be covered in later blog posts.

Instantaneous Quantum Polynomial-time (IQP)

An approach to showing a quantum advantage referred to as IQP is to perform a diagonal unitary in the $X$-basis ($\ket 0 \pm \ket 1$) on the all-zero input $\ket{00\dots 0}$. Alternatively, we could describe a unitary $D$ diagonal in the $Z$-basis and conjugate with $H^{\otimes n}$. The strings $w \in \Sigma^{*}$ then describe diagonal elements of $D_w$ for the circuits

where the language $\Sigma^{*}$ describes circuits in the family $\set{C_w}$. This turns out to be difficult to simulate for classical computers under suitable hardness assumptions 8. We will show the main result from 3: If it is possible to weakly classically simulate IQP circuits to within a constant multiplicative factor, then the Polynomial Hierarchy would collapse to the third level.

The Polynomial Hierarchy is an infinite hierarchy of complexity classes of increasing computational power. Defining it requires the notion of an oracle, a black box that can be queried in one time step for an answer in its complexity class. For complexity classes $A$ and $B$, we have that $A^B$ is the set of languages that can be decided by an algorithm in $A$ with access to an oracle for $B$, i.e. the algorithm may decide any language in $B$ by querying the oracle in one time step. Now let the polynomial hierarchy be defined as $\Delta_{k+1} = P^{N\Delta_k}$, with $\Delta_1 = P$ and $N\Delta_k$ the nondeterministic class associated to $\Delta_k$ (like $NP$ is associated to $P$). We have that

It is known that if $\Delta_i = \Delta_{i+1}$ for some $i$ then $\Delta_i = \Delta_j$ for all $j > i$.9 This is referred to as a collapse of the polynomial hierarchy to the $i$-th level. Such a collapse is not expected to be the case and is often likened to $P = NP$ (a collapse to the first level) though less extreme.

Another notion that we need is post-selection. We can view this as running a classical or quantum circuit and asserting that the outcomes on the post-selected wires will all be zero before looking at the output wires. This is, of course, not a natural assumption since, if you were to run the circuit, you are in no way guaranteed that the outputs on those wires will be zero. Nonetheless, it is a useful notion as we will see later. But first let us define post-selected circuits more formally.

Definition: Post-selected Complexity Classes3
A language $L$ is in $\text{Post-}A$ for complexity class $A$ (either $BPP$, $BQP$, or $IQP$) if and only if there is an error tolerance $0 < ε < 1/2$ and a family of circuits ${\mathcal C_w}$ of post-selected $A$ circuits with output $\mathcal O_w$ and post-selection wires $\mathcal P_w$ such that
  • if $w \in L$ then $\Pr\left[\mathcal O_w = 1 \middle\vert \mathcal P_w = 0\ldots 0 \right] \geq 1 - ε$ and
  • if $w \not\in L$ then $\Pr\left[\mathcal O_w = 0 \middle\vert \mathcal P_w = 0\ldots 0 \right] \geq 1 - ε$.

It is known that $\text{Post-}BPP \subseteq \Delta_3$.10 And from $P^{P^A} = P^A$ we have

Furthermore, by results of Aaronson and by Toda’s Theorem we get that post-selected quantum decision problems contain the entire polynomial hierarchy, i.e

Bremner, Jozsa and Shepherd3 showed that $\text{Post-}IQP = \text{Post-}BQP$. We will show that if $IQP$ circuits could be weakly simulated that this implies $\text{Post-}IQP \subseteq \text{Post-}BPP$, thus resulting in a collapse of the Polynomial Hierarchy to the third level. Therefore, it is unlikely that $IQP$ circuits will ever be perfectly simulable by a classical algorithm.

Theorem 2:3 If the output distributions of families of $IQP$ circuits could be weakly simulated to within multiplicative error $1\leq c < \sqrt{2}$, then $\text{Post-}IQP \subseteq \text{Post-}BPP$.

Proof: Let $L \in \text{Post-}IQP$ be decided by a post-selected circuit family $\set{C_w}$ where $w \in \Sigma^*$. We can split the output into post-selection wires $\mathcal P_w$ and output wire $\mathcal O_w$. From our definition of $\text{Post-}IQP$ we have

for some $0 < ε < 1/2$. Now let $\mathcal Y_w$ be all $m$ output wires of $\mathcal C_w$. We assumed that there exists a classical randomized weak simulator of $\mathcal C_w$, called $\widetilde{\mathcal C}_w$, with associated output wires $\widetilde{\mathcal Y}_w$ such that

This also holds for any subsets of registers of $\widetilde{\mathcal Y}_w$ such as the output wire $\widetilde{\mathcal O}_w$ and post-selection wires $\widetilde{\mathcal P}_w$. Now we have for $x \in \set{0,1}$

and a similar calculation shows

We combine these two results and fill in $x=1$, together with the first equation in the proof, to get

We just need to adjust $c$ to make sure that $L$ can be decided in $\text{Post-}BPP$: It must decide correctly more often than not, and there needs to be constant-sized gap between $w\in L$ and $w\not \in L$ decisions, So we get $1/c^2 (1-ε) > 1/2$ for $w \in L$, leading to $c^2/2 < 1-ε$. Since $0 < ε < 1/2$, we have that $1 \leq c < \sqrt{2}$ meets these constraints and are sufficient to show that $L \in \text{Post-}BPP$.$\square$

The main result follows directly from the previous Theorem and facts stated directly prior to it.

Corollary 3:3 If there is a weak simulator of families of $IQP$ circuits to within multiplicative error $1 \leq c < \sqrt{2}$ then the Polynomial Hierarchy would collapse to the third level.

Proof: We have


We have shown that even for such limited quantum circuits as $IQP$ circuits, it is unlikely that they could be weakly simulated classically. We can base this on the fact that otherwise the Polynomial Hierarchy would collapse to the third level. And we also introduced the notion of ε-simulation and poly-boxes to more precisely capture the notion of classically simulating quantum circuits.

There are follow-up results that show that sampling from $IQP$ circuits is hard even within an additive error ($\ell_1$ norm), asserting an average-case hardness conjecture11. In this blog post we only looked at sampling within a multiplicative distance. Furthermore, later, the same authors show that noise can make it easy to simulate $IQP$ circuits classically8. But at the same time they introduce new notions of fault-tolerance to correct for this. It is clear that the research is still looking for new ways to precisely define what it means to have a quantum advantage.

Thanks to Andrew Guo and Abhinav Deshpande for their help in writing this post.

References / Notes

  1. See e.g. one of the most heated discussions I’ve seen on Scirate, which also touches on the Latin origin of the term ancilla (“housemaid”, colloquially: helper qubit). While almost certainly an internet troll, ancilla the supremacist has become somewhat of a joke in my environment so I guess it has served its purpose. 

  2. Aaronson, Scott, and Alex Arkhipov. “The computational complexity of linear optics.” Proceedings of the forty-third annual ACM symposium on Theory of computing. ACM, 2011. doi:10.1145/1993636.1993682 

  3. Bremner, Michael J., Richard Jozsa, and Dan J. Shepherd. “Classical simulation of commuting quantum computations implies collapse of the polynomial hierarchy.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. The Royal Society, 2010. doi:10.1098/rspa.2010.0301  2 3 4 5 6 7

  4. Pashayan, Hakop, Stephen D. Bartlett, and David Gross. “From estimation of quantum probabilities to simulation of quantum circuits.” arXiv:1712.02806 [quant-ph] (2017).  2 3 4

  5. Hakop et al.4 describe a specific hypothesis testing scenario for which they show this two-way implication. 

  6. $\text{Parity}(Y) = 1$ iff the number of ones in $Y$ is even. $\oplus$ is the exclusive or. 

  7. Schwarz, Martin, and Maarten Van den Nest. “Simulating quantum circuits with sparse output distributions.” arXiv:1310.6749 [quant-ph] (2013). 

  8. Bremner, Michael J., Ashley Montanaro, and Dan J. Shepherd. “Achieving quantum supremacy with sparse and noisy commuting quantum computations.” Quantum 1 (2017): 8. doi:10.22331/q-2017-04-25-8  2

  9. Arora, Sanjeev, and Boaz Barak. Computational complexity: a modern approach. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

  10. Han, Yenjo, Lane A. Hemaspaandra, and Thomas Thierauf. “Threshold computation and cryptographic security.” SIAM Journal on Computing 26.1 (1997): 59-78. doi:10.1137/S0097539792240467 

  11. Bremner, Michael J., Ashley Montanaro, and Dan J. Shepherd. “Average-case complexity versus approximate simulation of commuting quantum computations.” Physical Review Letters 117.8 (2016): 080501. doi:10.1103/physrevlett.117.080501