The problem of quantifying the difference between evolutions of an open quantum system (in particular, between the actual evolution of an open system and the ideal target operation on the corresponding closed system) is important in quantum control, especially in control of quantum information processing. Motivated by this problem, we develop a measure for evaluating the distance between unitary evolution operators of a composite quantum system that consists of a sub-system of interest (e.g., a quantum information processor) and environment. The main characteristic of this measure is the invariance with respect to the effect of the evolution operator on the environment, which follows from an equivalence relation that exists between unitary operators acting on the composite system, when the effect on only the sub-system of interest is considered. The invariance to the environment’s transformation makes it possible to quantitatively compare the evolution of an open quantum system and its closed counterpart. The distance measure also determines the fidelity bounds of a general quantum channel (a completely positive and trace-preserving map acting on the sub-system of interest) with respect to a unitary target transformation. This measure is also independent of the initial state of the system and straightforward to numerically calculate. As an example, the measure is used in numerical simulations to evaluate fidelities of optimally controlled quantum gate operations (for one- and two-qubit systems), in the presence of a decohering environment. This example illustrates the utility of this measure for optimal control of quantum operations in the realistic case of open-system dynamics.

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