Let $\mathbb{S}_n$ denote the set of $n \times n$ symmetric positive semidefinite matrices. I am trying to figure out whether $k: \mathbb{S}_n \times \mathbb{S}_n \to \mathbb{R}_+$ defined as:

$$k(A, B) = \text{Tr}[(A^{1/2} B A^{1/2})^{1/2}]$$

is a positive definite kernel. Can anyone find a counterexample showing it is not? Or prove it is indeed a positive definite kernel?

Some analysis so far: Having failed to find a counterexample numerically, I am trying to show: $$\sum_{ij} k(A_i, A_j) x_i x_j \geq 0$$ holds for any $A_1, \dots, A_m \in \mathbb{S}_n$ and $x_1, \dots, x_m \in \mathbb{R}$. Without loss of generality we can assume that $x_1, \dots, x_m \in \{-1, +1\}$ since the change of $x_i \mapsto \text{sign}(x_i)$ and $A_i \mapsto x_i^2 A_i$ preserves the value on the left hand side above and all matrices remain positive semidefinite after this change of variables.

Let $\mathcal{P}$ denote the set of indices where $x_i x_j = +1$ and let $\mathcal{N}$ denote the set of indices where $x_i x_j = -1$. Then we just need to show the following inequality holds: $$\sum_{i=1}^m \text{Tr}[A_i] + 2 \sum_{(i,j)\in\mathcal{P}} k(A_i, A_j) \geq 2 \sum_{(i,j)\in\mathcal{N}} k(A_i, A_j)$$ This is where I'm stuck, or maybe a different approach is needed.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Unless if I'm misunderstanding the definition of positive definite kernel, I think no. Take $A = \text{diag}(1,0)$, $B=\text{diag}(1,1)$ and $C = \text{diag}(0,1)$ and form the associated kernel matrix. The determinant should be $\sqrt{2}-2<0$. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 5:42
  • $\begingroup$ $\mathbb{S}$ depends on a dimension (size of matrices) and hence the answer should depend on $n$. Shouldn't $\mathbb{S}$ be denoted $\mathbb{S}_n$? (I also assume they are meant to be symmetric) $\endgroup$
    – YCor
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 9:09
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Indeed in restriction to 2-dim nonnegative diagonal matrices, this reads as $k((x_1,y_1),(x_2,y_2))=\sqrt{x_1x_2}+\sqrt{y_1y_2}$. For the three matrices $A,B,C$ proposed by @JasonGaitonde we get the Gram matrix $\begin{pmatrix}1 & 1 & 0\\1 & 2 & 1\\ 0 & 1 & 1\end{pmatrix}$ whose eigenvalues are $0,1,3$, so it is $\ge 0$. $\endgroup$
    – YCor
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ @YCor ah whoops -- bad algebra error! I thought the middle 2 was $\sqrt{2}$... $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, now that I think about it, diagonal matrices cannot provide a counterexample, as the entries are a genuine Gram matrix after applying the coordinate-wise square root to the underlying diagonal matrices. Interesting question! $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 10:47

1 Answer 1


Counterexample for $n = 2$ :

Let $A_k$ be the orthonormal projection on the span of $$(\cos(2 \pi (k-1) / 5), \sin(2 \pi (k-1) / 5))^\mathsf{T} , \quad k = 1...5.$$

Then $k(A_k,A_l) = \vert \cos(2 \pi (k-l) / 5) \vert$ .

The corresponding matrix has the eigenvalue $-0.11803398874989484820458683436563811772$ with multiplicity $2$ .


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