It from Qubit: The Last Hurrah


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Editor’s note: Since 2015, the Simons Foundation has supported the “It from Qubit” collaboration, a group of scientists drawing on ideas from quantum information theory to address deep issues in fundamental physics. The collaboration held its “Last Hurrah” event at Perimeter Institute last week. Here is a transcript of remarks by John Preskill at the conference dinner.

It from Qubit 2023 at Perimeter Institute

This meeting is forward-looking, as it should be, but it’s fun to look back as well, to assess and appreciate the progress we’ve made. So my remarks may meander back and forth through the years. Settle back — this may take a while.

We proposed the It from Qubit collaboration in March 2015, in the wake of several years of remarkable progress. Interestingly, that progress was largely provoked by an idea that most of us think is wrong: Black hole firewalls. Wrong perhaps, but challenging to grapple with.

This challenge accelerated a synthesis of quantum computing, quantum field theory, quantum matter, and quantum gravity as well. By 2015, we were already appreciating the relevance to quantum gravity of concepts like quantum error correction, quantum computational complexity, and quantum chaos. It was natural to assemble a collaboration in which computer scientists and information theorists would participate along with high-energy physicists.

We built our proposal around some deep questions where further progress seemed imminent, such as these:

Does spacetime emerge from entanglement?
Do black holes have interiors?
What is the information-theoretical structure of quantum field theory?
Can quantum computers simulate all physical phenomena?

On April 30, 2015 we presented our vision to the Simons Foundation, led by Patrick [Hayden] and Matt [Headrick], with Juan [Maldacena], Lenny [Susskind] and me tagging along. We all shared at that time a sense of great excitement; that feeling must have been infectious, because It from Qubit was successfully launched.

Some It from Qubit investigators at a 2015 meeting.

Since then ideas we talked about in 2015 have continued to mature, to ripen. Now our common language includes ideas like islands and quantum extremal surfaces, traversable wormholes, modular flow, the SYK model, quantum gravity in the lab, nonisometric codes, the breakdown of effective field theory when quantum complexity is high, and emergent geometry described by Von Neumann algebras. In parallel, we’ve seen a surge of interest in quantum dynamics in condensed matter, focused on issues like how entanglement spreads, and how chaotic systems thermalize — progress driven in part by experimental advances in quantum simulators, both circuit-based and analog.

Why did we call ourselves “It from Qubit”? Patrick explained that in our presentation with a quote from John Wheeler in 1990. Wheeler said,

“It from bit” symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-or-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.

As is often the case with Wheeler, you’re not quite sure what he’s getting at. But you can glean that Wheeler envisioned that progress in fundamental physics would be hastened by bringing in ideas from information theory. So we updated Wheeler’s vision by changing “it from bit” to “it from qubit.”

As you may know, Richard Feynman had been Wheeler’s student, and he once said this about Wheeler: “Some people think Wheeler’s gotten crazy in his later years, but he’s always been crazy.” So you can imagine how flattered I was when Graeme Smith said the exact same thing about me.

During the 1972-73 academic year, I took a full-year undergraduate course from Wheeler at Princeton that covered everything in physics, so I have a lot of Wheeler stories. I’ll just tell one, which will give you some feel for his teaching style. One day, Wheeler arrives in class dressed immaculately in a suit and tie, as always, and he says: “Everyone take out a sheet of paper, and write down all the equations of physics – don’t leave anything out.” We dutifully start writing equations. The Schrödinger equation, Newton’s laws, Maxwell’s equations, the definition of entropy and the laws of thermodynanics, Navier-Stokes … we had learned a lot. Wheeler collects all the papers, and puts them in a stack on a table at the front of the classroom. He gestures toward the stack and says imploringly “Fly!” [Long pause.] Nothing happens. He tries again, even louder this time: “Fly!” [Long pause.] Nothing happens. Then Wheeler concludes: “On good authority, this stack of papers contains all the equations of physics. But it doesn’t fly. Yet, the universe flies. Something must be missing.”

Channeling Wheeler at the banquet, I implore my equations to fly. Photo by Jonathan Oppenheim.

He was an odd man, but inspiring. And not just odd, but also old. We were 19 and could hardly believe he was still alive — after all, he had worked with Bohr on nuclear fission in the 1930s! He was 61. I’m wiser now, and know that’s not really so old.

Now let’s skip ahead to 1998. Just last week, Strings 2023 happened right here at PI. So it’s fitting to mention that a pivotal Strings meeting occurred 25 years ago, Strings 1998 in Santa Barbara. The participants were in a celebratory mood, so much so that Jeff Harvey led hundreds of physicists in a night of song and dance. It went like this [singing to the tune of “The Macarena”]:

You start with the brane
and the brane is BPS.
Then you go near the brane
and the space is AdS.
Who knows what it means?
I don’t, I confess.
Ehhhh! Maldacena!

You can’t blame them for wanting to celebrate. Admittedly I wasn’t there, so how did I know that hundreds of physicists were singing and dancing? I read about it in the New York Times!

It was significant that by 1998, the Strings meetings had already been held annually for 10 years. You might wonder how that came about. Let’s go back to 1984. Those of you who are too young to remember might not realize that in the late 70s and early 80s string theory was in eclipse. It had initially been proposed as a model of hadrons, but after the discovery of asymptotic freedom in 1973 quantum chromodynamics became accepted as the preferred theory of the strong interactions. (Maybe the QCD string will make a comeback someday – we’ll see.) The community pushing string theory forward shrunk to a handful of people around the world. That changed very abruptly in August 1984. I tried to capture that sudden change in a poem I wrote for John Schwarz’s 60th birthday in 2001. I’ll read it — think of this as a history lesson.

Thirty years ago or more
John saw what physics had in store.
He had a vision of a string
And focused on that one big thing.

But then in nineteen-seven-three
Most physicists had to agree
That hadrons blasted to debris
Were well described by QCD.

The string, it seemed, by then was dead.
But John said: “It’s space-time instead!
The string can be revived again.
Give masses twenty powers of ten!

Then Dr. Green and Dr. Black,
Writing papers by the stack,
Made One, Two-A, and Two-B glisten.
Why is it none of us would listen?

We said, “Who cares if super tricks
Bring D to ten from twenty-six?
Your theory must have fatal flaws.
Anomalies will doom your cause.”

If you weren’t there you couldn’t know
The impact of that mighty blow:
“The Green-Schwarz theory could be true —
It works for S-O-thirty-two!”

Then strings of course became the rage
And young folks of a certain age
Could not resist their siren call:
One theory that explains it all.

Because he never would give in,
Pursued his dream with discipline,
John Schwarz has been a hero to me.
So … please don’t spell it with a& “t”!

And 39 years after the revolutionary events of 1984, the intellectual feast launched by string theory still thrives.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many high-energy physicists got interested in the black hole information problem. Of course, the problem was 15 years old by then; it arose when Hawking radiation was discovered, as Hawking himself pointed out shortly thereafter. But many of us were drawn to this problem while we waited for the Superconducting Super Collider to turn on. As I have sometimes done when I wanted to learn something, in 1990 I taught a course on quantum field theory in curved spacetime, the main purpose of which was to explain the origin of Hawking radiation, and then for a few years I tried to understand whether information can escape from black holes and if so how, as did many others in those days. That led to a 1992 Aspen program co-organized by Andy Strominger and me on “Quantum Aspects of Black Holes.” Various luminaries were there, among them Hawking, Susskind, Sidney Coleman, Kip Thorne, Don Page, and others. Andy and I were asked to nominate someone from our program to give the Aspen Center colloquium, so of course we chose Lenny, and he gave an engaging talk on “The Puzzle of Black Hole Evaporation.”

At the end of the talk, Lenny reported on discussions he’d had with various physicists he respected about the information problem, and he summarized their views. Of course, Hawking said information is lost. ‘t Hooft said that the S-matrix must be unitary for profound reasons we needed to understand. Polchinski said in 1992 that information is lost and there is no way to retrieve it. Yakir Aharonov said that the information resides in a stable Planck-sized black hole remnant. Sidney Coleman said a black hole is a lump of coal — that was the code in 1992 for what we now call the central dogma of black hole physics, that as seen from the outside a black hole is a conventional quantum system. And – remember this was Lenny’s account of what he claimed people had told him – Frank Wilczek said this is a technical problem, I’ll soon have it solved, while Ed Witten said he did not find the problem interesting.

We talked a lot that summer about the no-cloning principle, and our discomfort with the notion that the quantum information encoded in an infalling encyclopedia could be in two places at once on the same time slice, seen inside the black hole by infalling observers and seen outside the black hole by observers who peruse the Hawking radiation. That potential for cloning shook the faith of the self-appointed defenders of unitarity. Andy and I wrote a report at the end of the workshop with a pessimistic tone:

There is an emerging consensus among the participants that Hawking is essentially right – that the information loss paradox portends a true revolution in fundamental physics. If so, then one must go further, and develop a sensible “phenomenological” theory of information loss. One must reconcile the fact of information loss with established principles of physics, such as locality and energy conservation. We expect that many people, stimulated by their participation in the workshop, will now focus attention on this challenge.

I posted a paper on the arXiv a month later with a similar outlook.

There was another memorable event a year later, in June 1993, a conference at the ITP in Santa Barbara (there was no “K” back then), also called “Quantum Aspects of Black Holes.” Among those attending were Susskind, Gibbons, Polchinski, Thorne, Wald, Israel, Bekenstein, and many others. By then our mood was brightening. Rather pointedly, Lenny said to me that week: “Why is this meeting so much better than the one you organized last year?” And I replied, “Because now you think you know the answer!”

That week we talked about “black hole complementarity,” our hope that quantum information being available both inside and outside the horizon could be somehow consistent with the linearity of quantum theory. Complementarity then was a less radical, less wildly nonlocal idea than it became later on. We envisioned that information in an infalling body could stick to the stretched horizon, but not, as I recall, that the black hole interior would be somehow encoded in Hawking radiation emitted long ago — that came later. But anyway, we felt encouraged.

Joe Polchinski organized a poll of the participants, where one could choose among four options.

  1. Information is lost (unitarity violated)
  2. Information escapes (causality violated)
  3. Planck-scale black hole remnants
  4. None of the above

The poll results favored unitarity over information loss by a 60-40 margin. Perhaps not coincidentally, the participants self-identified as 60% high energy physicists and 40% relativists.

The following summer in June 1994, there was a program called Geometry and Gravity at the Newton Institute in Cambridge. Hawking, Gibbons, Susskind, Strominger, Harvey, Sorkin, and (Herman) Verlinde were among the participants. I had more discussions with Lenny that month than any time before or since. I recall sending an email to Paul Ginsparg after one such long discussion in which I said, “When I hear Lenny Susskind speak, I truly believe that information can come out of a black hole.” Secretly, though, having learned about Shor’s algorithm shortly before that program began, I was spending my evenings struggling to understand Shor’s paper. After Cambridge, Lenny visited ‘t Hooft in Utrecht, and returned to Stanford all charged up to write his paper on “The world as a hologram,” in which he credits ‘t Hooft with the idea that “the world is in a sense two-dimensional.”

Important things happened in the next few years: D-branes, counting of black hole microstates, M-theory, and AdS/CFT. But I’ll skip ahead to the most memorable of my visits to Perimeter Institute. (Of course, I always like coming here, because in Canada you use the same electrical outlets we do …)

In June 2007, there was a month-long program at PI called “Taming the Quantum World.” I recall that Lucien Hardy objected to that title — he preferred “Let the Beast Loose” — which I guess is a different perspective on the same idea. I talked there about fault-tolerant quantum computing, but more importantly, I shared an office with Patrick Hayden. I already knew Patrick well — he had been a Caltech postdoc — but I was surprised and pleased that he was thinking about black holes. Patrick had already reached crucial insights concerning the behavior of a black hole that is profoundly entangled with its surroundings. That sparked intensive discussions resulting in a paper later that summer called “Black holes as mirrors.” In the acknowledgments you’ll find this passage:

We are grateful for the hospitality of the Perimeter Institute, where we had the good fortune to share an office, and JP thanks PH for letting him use the comfortable chair.

We intended for that paper to pique the interest of both the quantum information and quantum gravity communities, as it seemed to us that the time was ripe to widen the communication channel between the two. Since then, not only has that communication continued, but a deeper synthesis has occurred; most serious quantum gravity researchers are now well acquainted with the core concepts of quantum information science.

That John Schwarz poem I read earlier reminds me that I often used to write poems. I do it less often lately. Still, I feel that you are entitled to hear something that rhymes tonight. But I quickly noticed our field has many words that are quite hard to rhyme, like “chaos” and “dogma.” And perhaps the hardest of all: “Takayanagi.” So I decided to settle for some limericks — that’s easier for me than a full-fledged poem.

This first one captures how I felt when I first heard about AdS/CFT: excited but perplexed.

Spacetime is emergent they say.
But emergent in what sort of way?
It’s really quite cool,
The bulk has a dual!
I might understand that someday.

For a quantum information theorist, it was pleasing to learn later on that we can interpret the dictionary as an encoding map, such that the bulk degrees of freedom are protected when a portion of the boundary is erased.

Almheiri and Harlow and Dong
Said “you’re thinking about the map wrong.”
It’s really a code!
That’s the thing that they showed.
Should we have known that all along?

(It is easier to rhyme “Dong” than “Takayanagi”.) To see that connection one needed a good grasp of both AdS/CFT and quantum error-correcting codes. In 2014 few researchers knew both, but those guys did.

For all our progress, we still don’t have a complete answer to a key question that inspired IFQ. What’s inside a black hole?

Information loss has been denied.
Locality’s been cast aside.
When the black hole is gone
What fell in’s been withdrawn.
I’d still like to know: what’s inside?

We’re also still lacking an alternative nonperturbative formulation of the bulk; we can only say it’s something that’s dual to the boundary. Until we can define both sides of the correspondence, the claim that two descriptions are equivalent, however inspiring, will remain unsatisfying.

Duality I can embrace.
Complexity, too, has its place.
That’s all a good show
But I still want to know:
What are the atoms of space?

The question, “What are the atoms of space?” is stolen from Joe Polchinski, who framed it to explain to a popular audience what we’re trying to answer. I miss Joe. He was a founding member of It from Qubit, an inspiring scientific leader, and still an inspiration for all of us today.

The IFQ Simons collaboration may fade away, but the quest that has engaged us these past 8 years goes on. IFQ is the continuation of a long struggle, which took on great urgency with Hawking’s formulation of the information loss puzzle nearly 50 years ago. Understanding quantum gravity and its implications is a huge challenge and a grand quest that humanity is obligated to pursue. And it’s fun and it’s exciting, and I sincerely believe that we’ve made remarkable progress in recent years, thanks in large part to you, the IFQ community. We are privileged to live at a time when truths about the nature of space and time are being unveiled. And we are privileged to be part of this community, with so many like-minded colleagues pulling in the same direction, sharing the joy of facing this challenge.

Where is it all going? Coming back to our pitch to the Simons Foundation in 2015, I was very struck by Juan’s presentation that day, and in particular his final slide. I liked it so much that I stole it and used in my presentations for a while. Juan tried to explain what we’re doing by means of an analogy to biological science. How are the quantumists like the biologists?

Well, bulk quantum gravity is life. We all want to understand life. The boundary theory is chemistry, which underlies life. The quantum information theorists are chemists; they want to understand chemistry in detail. The quantum gravity theorists are biologists, they think chemistry is fine, if it can really help them to understand life. What we want is: molecular biology, the explanation for how life works in terms of the underlying chemistry. The black hole information problem is our fruit fly, the toy problem we need to solve before we’ll be ready to take on a much bigger challenge: finding the cure for cancer; that is, understanding the big bang.

How’s it going? We’ve made a lot of progress since 2015. We haven’t cured cancer. Not yet. But we’re having a lot of fun along the way there.

I’ll end with this hope, addressed especially to those who were not yet born when AdS/CFT was first proposed, or were still scampering around in your playpens. I’ll grant you a reprieve, you have another 8 years. By then: May you cure cancer!

So I propose this toast: To It from Qubit, to our colleagues and friends, to our quest, to curing cancer, to understanding the universe. I wish you all well. Cheers!