Consider the task of fully determining an $n$-qubit state $\rho$ which can be written as

\begin{equation}\tag{1} \rho = \sum_{p \in \{I, X, Y, Z\}^n} \text{Tr}(\rho P_{p}) P_{p} \end{equation}

and each $P_{p} = P_{p_1} \otimes \dots \otimes P_{p_n}$ is a tensor product of Pauli matrices. This suggests that I could perform state tomography evaluate each expectation value $\langle P_p \rangle = \text{Tr}(\rho P_p)$. I would plan on having $3^n$ distinct experimental configurations, one for each combination of local measurement bases $\{X, Y, Z\}^n$.

I thought that the discrepancy between $3^n$ measurement configurations and $4^n-1$ coefficients needed to specify $(1)$ would be resolved because an expectation value of the form $\langle X \otimes I \otimes X \rangle$ could be computed using a marginal distribution over the bitstrings results from the experiment that measures $\langle X \otimes X \otimes X\rangle$ (or the experiments used to compute $\langle X \otimes Y \otimes X\rangle$ or $\langle X \otimes Z \otimes X\rangle$). So any experiment to determine a term $\text{Tr}(\rho P_p)$ Equation $(1)$ where $P_p$ contained an $I$ would be redundant with some other experiment. This is one of the features motivating the method of (Huang, 2021): If you instantiate Theorem 1 therein with $L=4^n$ and $w=n$, it asserts that $4^n$ many $\epsilon$-accurate estimators for Pauli expectation values can be computed in $M = O(n3^n / \epsilon^2)$ total experiments.

But when I look elsewhere in the literature (e.g. Franca, 2017) it suggests that for an arbitrary full-rank, $2^n$-dimensional state $\rho$ you do indeed need $\Omega(4^n)$ measurement configurations for quantum state tomography.

How do I resolve the discrepancy between these two scaling behaviors?


2 Answers 2


Let's say you have a magical machine that gives you $\langle P_{p} \rangle$ (which are expectation values and therefor, well, numbers) and only the $\langle P_{p} \rangle$. It does this for all the $3$- (n)-fold tensor products of the traceless Paulis. That is: $p \in \{X,Y,Z\}^{\otimes 3 (n)}$, for a total of $3^{3 (n)}$ Paulis, where $n$ is the general case and $3$ is specific to your examples.

The process that you describe to obtain e.g. $\langle X \otimes I \otimes X \rangle$ from, say, $\langle X \otimes X \otimes X \rangle$ does not work here. For that, you need more. These $3^{n}$ values are not enough.

The trick is, the usual method of obtaining these Pauli expectation values is by measuring every qubit in a Pauli basis separately. A single-qubit Pauli measurement is a projection upon either of its eigenspaces. For instance, for the $Z$ operator has projectors $|0\rangle\langle0|$ and $|1\rangle\langle1|$, and the $X$ operator has projectors $|+\rangle\langle+|$ and $|-\rangle\langle-|$. You thus gather (and use) the statistics of six operators per qubit to perform full QST! This results in a total of $6^{n}$ (positive) operators that one uses in standard QST - in the case of the Paulis these are projectors, but the more general POVM can also work.

With all these operators one can reconstruct all Paulis (including the containing-$I$-terms) and therefor reconstruct the density matrix. This is exactly possible because these $6^{n}$ operators form a spanning set of the space of density matrices. The Paulis do too$^{1}$ and therefor we can use either of them reconstruct the density matrix.

But wait - now we have $6^{n}$ terms! We only needed $4^{n}$ terms, right? Well, yes! The space of density matrices dimension' scales as $4^{n}$, so if you can find a set of (positive) operators of size $4^{n}$ that are independent, this should work. A particular nice example is a SIC-POVM; a Symmetric and Informationally-Complete POVM. If you have some magical machine that can perform this SIC-POVM $\{A_{k}\}$ measurement on all your qubits, it would have to perform $4^{n}$ measurements and return single values $\langle A_{k} \rangle = \mathrm{tr}\big[\rho A_{k}\big]$, which would be enough to reconstruct the entire density matrix.

A more straightforward but also easier example of a $4$-partite POVM (actually, PVM) is the set consisting of the $+1$ and $-1$ eigenstates of the $Z$ operator and the $+1$ eigenstates of the $X$ and $Y$ operators: $\{|0\rangle\langle0|,|1\rangle\langle1|,|+\rangle\langle+|,|+i\rangle\langle+i|\}$. You can check that these form a basis for the space of density matrices. However, please realize that to experimentally implement this PVM would be a daunting task (if not completely impossible) without just performing all $3^{n}$ Pauli measurements. But yeah - you could perform Pauli measurements in all $3^{n}$ basis and then only use the statistics for the above projectors, and throw the $-1$ eigenstates of $X$ and $Y$ away!

$^{1}$Actually, they don't. They form a spanning set (and a basis) for the space of Hermitian matrices, of which density matrices are a subset; they're not even density matrices themselves because they're not positive semidefinite nor have trace $1$. But this is not important for the current discussion.

  • $\begingroup$ Okay so is the discrepancy because I have thought of each local Pauli basis measurement as a single measurement configuration, when its actually two measurement configurations (the two eigenstates of the operator)? $\endgroup$
    – forky40
    Aug 12, 2021 at 18:46
  • $\begingroup$ "The process that you describe to obtain e.g. $\langle X \otimes I \otimes X \rangle$ from, say, $\langle X \otimes X \otimes X \rangle$ does not work here. For that, you need more. These $3^n$ values are not enough." - sorry, I don't understand what I got wrong here. Suppose I prepare $|\psi\rangle$ and measure in the computational basis, this returns empirical probabilities $p_{ij},\,ij\in \{0,1\}^2$. I compute $ \langle Z Z \rangle = p_{00} + p_{11} - p_{01} - p_{10}$. Then I reuse the same experimental results to compute $\langle Z I\rangle = p_{00} + p_{01} - p_{10} - p_{11}$ $\endgroup$
    – forky40
    Aug 12, 2021 at 18:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ To answer your second comment first: note that her you already implicitly assume (and rightfully so, usually this is exactly what is returned by the measurement) that you obtain/can estimate all the $p_{ij}$. From this you can compute $\langle ZZ \rangle$ and $\langle ZI \rangle$ (and $\langle IZ \rangle$, of course). But the point I'm making is that just from $\langle ZZ \rangle$ itself one could not calculate the other two. If you only have these $3^{n}$ values, it's not enough. $\endgroup$
    – JSdJ
    Aug 15, 2021 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding your first comment: yes. The $4^{n}$ bound is regarding measurement operators, but in a Pauli measurement the Pauli is an observable. The measurement operators are the eigenspace projectors (and hence we are talking about a PVM), of which there are two per Pauli. So performing measurements in all three Pauli basis is the same as gathering statistics for six different measurement operators. $\endgroup$
    – JSdJ
    Aug 15, 2021 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ And then, the realization is that standard QST (i.e. with Pauli basis measurements) is in some way doing too much - it's an overdetermined system. However, practically implementing something like a SIC-POVM is easier said then done - therefore experimentalists just do the $3^{n}$ different Pauli measurement configurations. $\endgroup$
    – JSdJ
    Aug 15, 2021 at 13:39

Let $\mathcal X$ be an $N$-dimensional (complex) vector space space. The (real) vector space of Hermitian operators defined on it, $\mathrm{Herm}(\mathcal X)$, has dimension $N^2$. An easy way to see this is to realise that generic complex matrices are characterised by $2N^2$ real parameters, and $A^\dagger=A$ imposes $N^2$ independent constraints. Equivalently, you can notice that the set of complex orthonormal bases also has dimension $N^2$ (as a manifold, not as a vector space), and exploit the close relation between (skew-)Hermitian matrices and unitaries.

The set of density matrices on $\mathcal X$ is a convex subset of the affine subspace of $\mathrm{Herm}(\mathcal X)$ defined by the normalisation condition $\operatorname{Tr}(\rho)=1$. This makes it a subset of an $(N^2-1)$-affine subspace. More specifically, it is the (convex) subset defined by the non-negativity condition $\rho\ge0$.

Applying this to an $n$-qubit system, we have $N=2^n$ and thus the set of states is a convex subset of an affine $((2^n)^2-1)=(4^n-1)$-dimensional space.

The reason you got a wrong result is that you overestimated the contribution of the normalisation to the counting. Expectation values such as $X\otimes I$ are independent from the others. To see it, notice that you can take states of the form $\sum_k c_p P_p$, and arbitrarily change the $X\otimes I$ without touching the other coefficients (assuming all coefficients are small enough that you still get a valid quantum state doing such perturbation).

With regards to the number of needed measurement configurations, one should keep into account that the number of coefficients characterising a state needs not be strictly related to the number of measurement configurations used to do it. As an extreme example, one could use a single measurement configuration to estimate all of the expectation values. To see it, evolve the state through a random isometry that sufficiently enlarges the space, and measure in the outcome computational basis. This is a single measurement setting, but in principle allows you to estimate all the expectation values at once. On the other extreme, if you consider measurement settings with binary outcomes, you will need $\mathcal O(\log_2 N)$ of them.

  • $\begingroup$ Could you clarify what you mean by "Expectation values such as $X \otimes I$ are independent from the others" ? I understand that you can't use the scalar $\langle X \otimes X \rangle$ to determine $\langle X \otimes I\rangle$. But one can reuse the experimental outcomes that one measures after applying $(H \otimes H)$ to $|\psi\rangle$ to compute both $\langle X \otimes I\rangle$ and $\langle X \otimes X \rangle$, no? Its just averaging bitstring parities over the marginal or joint distribution of bit outcomes respectively. $\endgroup$
    – forky40
    Aug 12, 2021 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ @forky40 I might be misunderstanding, but are you possibly confusing the number of expectation values characterising a state with the number of experimental configurations used to do that? The number of degrees of freedom, i.e. of expectation values needed to characterise a state, is $N^2-1$. The number of experimental settings used to acquire such information is an entirely different matter. It is possible in principle to use a single experimental setting to get information about arbitrarily many expectation values (assuming an appropriate number of samples is taken, of course) $\endgroup$
    – glS
    Aug 12, 2021 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ I see, I think that's exactly where I was getting confused. I think there might be a language issue in how different sources are defining "measurement configuration" (e.g. an element of a POVM versus a pre-measurement change of basis) $\endgroup$
    – forky40
    Aug 12, 2021 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ @forky40 the language can definitely be confusing in these contexts. The math, once you are familiar with the underlying ideas, is usually much clearer imo. I would call "measurement configuration" the "pre-measurement change of basis", or equivalently, the POVM with which the state is effectively being measured. A single term of a POVM is better called a "measurement outcome" IMO (though, of course, one should more precisely say that it is an operator encoding the probability of observing such outcome for different states) $\endgroup$
    – glS
    Aug 12, 2021 at 19:58

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