Completely positive, trace preserving (CPT) maps and Lindblad master equations are both widely used to describe the dynamics of open quantum systems. The connection between these two descriptions is a classic topic in mathematical physics. One direction was solved by the now famous result due to Lindblad, Kossakowski, Gorini and Sudarshan, who gave a complete characterisation of the master equations that generate completely positive semi-groups. However, the other direction has remained open: given a CPT map, is there a Lindblad master equation that generates it (and if so, can we find its form)? This is sometimes known as the Markovianity problem. Physically, it is asking how one can deduce underlying physical processes from experimental observations.
We give a complexity theoretic answer to this problem: it is NP-hard. We also give an explicit algorithm that reduces the problem to integer semi-definite programming, a well-known NP problem. Together, these results imply that resolving the question of which CPT maps can be generated by master equations is tantamount to solving P = NP: any efficiently computable criterion for Markovianity would imply P = NP; whereas a proof that P = NP would imply that our algorithm already gives an efficiently computable criterion. Thus, unless P does equal NP, there cannot exist any simple criterion for determining when a CPT map has a master equation description.
However, we also show that if the system dimension is fixed (relevant for current quantum process tomography experiments), then our algorithm scales efficiently in the required precision, allowing an underlying Lindblad master equation to be determined efficiently from even a single snapshot in this case.
Our work also leads to similar complexity-theoretic answers to a related long-standing open problem in probability theory.
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