From today’s quant-ph arXiv listing we find the following paper:
In this new paper, Michalakis and Pytel show that any local gapped frustration-free Hamiltonian which is topologically ordered is stable under quasi-local perturbations. Whoa, that’s a mouthful… let’s try to break it down a bit.
Recall that a local Hamiltonian for a system of n spins is one which is a sum of polynomially many terms, each of which acts nontrivially on at most k spins for some constant k. Although this definition only enforces algebraic locality, let’s go ahead and require geometric locality as well by assuming that the spins all live on a lattice in d dimensions and all the interactions are localized to a ball of radius 1 on that lattice.
Why should we restrict to the case of geometric locality? There are at least two reasons. First, spins on a lattice is an incredibly important special case. Second, we have very few tools for analyzing quantum Hamiltonians which are k-local on a general hypergraph. Actually, few means something closer to none. (If you know any, please mention them in the comments!) On cubic lattices, we have many powerful techniques such Lieb-Robinson bounds, which the above results make heavy use of .
We say a Hamiltonian is frustration-free if the ground space is composed of states which are also ground states of each term separately. Thus, these Hamiltonians are “quantum satisfiable”, as a computer scientist would say. This too is an important requirement, since it is one of the most general classes of Hamiltonians about which we have any decent understanding. There are several key features of frustration-free Hamiltonians, but perhaps chief among them is the consistency of the ground space. The ground states on a local patch of spins are always globally consistent with the ground space of the full Hamiltonian, a fact which isn’t true for frustrated models.
We further insist that the Hamiltonian is gapped, which in this context means that there is some constant γ>0 independent of the system size which lower bounds the energy of any eigenstate orthogonal to the ground space. The gap assumption is extremely important since it is again closely related to the notion of locality. The spectral gap sets an energy scale and hence also a length scale, the correlation length. For two disjoint regions of spins separated by a length L in the lattice, the connected correlation function for any pair or local operators decays exponentially in L.
The last property, topological order, can be tricky to define. One of the key insights of this paper is a new definition of a sufficient condition for topological stability that the authors call local topological order. Roughly speaking, this new condition says that ground states of the local Hamiltonian are not distinguishable by any (sufficiently) local operator, except up to small effects that vanish rapidly in a neighborhood of the support of the local operator. Thus, the ground space can be used to encode quantum information which is insensitive to local operators! Since nature presumably acts locally and hence can’t corrupt the (nonlocally encoded) quantum information, systems with topological order would seem to be great candidates for quantum memories. Indeed, this was exactly the motivation when Kitaev originally defined the toric code.
Phew, that was a lot of background. So what exactly did Michalakis and Pytel prove, and why is it important? They proved that if a Hamiltonian satisfying the above criteria is subject to a sufficiently weak but arbitrary quasi-local perturbation then two things are stable: the spectral gap and the ground state degeneracy. (Quasi-local just means that strength of the perturbation decays sufficiently fast with respect to the size of the supporting region.) A bit more precisely, the spectral gap remains bounded from below by a constant independent of the system size, and the ground state degeneracy splits by an amount which is at most exponentially small in the size of the system.
There are several reasons why these stability results are important. First of all, the new result is very general: generic frustration-free Hamiltonians are a substantial extension of frustration-free commuting Hamiltonians (where the BHM and BH papers already show similar results). It means that the results potentially apply to models of topological quantum memory based on subsystem codes, such as that proposed by Bombin, where the syndrome measurements are only two-body. Second, the splitting of the ground state degeneracy determines the dephasing (T2) time for any qubits encoded in that ground space. Hence, for a long-lived quantum memory, the smaller the splitting the better. These stability results promise that even imperfectly engineered Hamiltonians should have an acceptably small splitting of the ground state degeneracy. Finally, a constant spectral gap means that when the temperature of the system is such that kT<<γ, thermal excitations are suppressed exponentially by a Boltzmann factor. The stability results show that the cooling requirements for the quantum memory do not increase with the system size.
Ah, but now we have opened a can of worms by mentioning temperature… The stability (or lack there of) of topological quantum phases at finite temperature is a fascinating topic which is the focus of much ongoing research, and perhaps it will be the subject of a future post. But for now, congratulations to Michalakis and Pytel on their interesting new paper.