The Surprising Ease of Finding Optimal Solutions for Controlling Nonlinear Phenomena in Quantum and Classical Complex Systems

Herschel Rabitz, Benjamin Russell, Tak San Ho

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


This Perspective addresses the often observed surprising ease of achieving optimal control of nonlinear phenomena in quantum and classical complex systems. The circumstances involved are wide-ranging, with scenarios including manipulation of atomic scale processes, maximization of chemical and material properties or synthesis yields, Nature’s optimization of species’ populations by natural selection, and directed evolution. Natural evolution will mainly be discussed in terms of laboratory experiments with microorganisms, and the field is also distinct from the other domains where a scientist specifies the goal(s) and oversees the control process. We use the word “control” in reference to all of the available variables, regardless of the circumstance. The empirical observations on the ease of achieving at least good, if not excellent, control in diverse domains of science raise the question of why this occurs despite the generally inherent complexity of the systems in each scenario. The key to addressing the question lies in examining the associated control landscape, which is defined as the optimization objective as a function of the control variables that can be as diverse as the phenomena under consideration. Controls may range from laser pulses, chemical reagents, chemical processing conditions, out to nucleic acids in the genome and more. This Perspective presents a conjecture, based on present findings, that the systematics of readily finding good outcomes from controlled phenomena may be unified through consideration of control landscapes with the same common set of three underlying assumptions─the existence of an optimal solution, the ability for local movement on the landscape, and the availability of sufficient control resources─whose validity needs assessment in each scenario. In practice, many cases permit using myopic gradient-like algorithms while other circumstances utilize algorithms having some elements of stochasticity or introduced noise, depending on whether the landscape is locally smooth or rough. The overarching observation is that only relatively short searches are required despite the common high dimensionality of the available controls in typical scenarios.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4224-4236
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Physical Chemistry A
Issue number19
StatePublished - May 18 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry


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