We study the relationship between the Quantum Approximate Optimization Algorithm (QAOA) and the underlying symmetries of the objective function to be optimized. Our approach formalizes the connection between quantum symmetry properties of the QAOA dynamics and the group of classical symmetries of the objective function. The connection is general and includes but is not limited to problems defined on graphs. We show a series of results exploring the connection and highlight examples of hard problem classes where a nontrivial symmetry subgroup can be obtained efficiently. In particular, we show how classical objective function symmetries lead to invariant measurement outcome probabilities across states connected by such symmetries, independent of the choice of algorithm parameters or number of layers. We illustrate the power of the developed connection in two ways. First, we apply machine learning techniques towards predicting QAOA performance based on symmetry considerations. We provide numerical evidence that a small set of graph symmetry properties suffices to predict the minimum QAOA depth required to achieve a target approximation ratio on the MaxCut problem, in a practically important setting where QAOA parameter schedules are constrained to be linear and hence easier to optimize. Second, we show a connection between classical symmetries of the objective function and the symmetries of the terms of the cost Hamiltonian with respect to the QAOA energy. We show how by considering only the terms that are not connected by symmetry, we can significantly reduce the cost of evaluating the QAOA energy.
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