Microsoft’s Quantum Computing (Poorly) Explained

Posted on September 26, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud with 17 Comments

Microsoft's Quantum Computing (Poorly) Explained

Microsoft’s Quantum Computing initiative was a highlight of yesterday’s Ignite keynote address. But it’s also a complex topic, so I spent a bit of time trying to learn more.

My brain hurts just thinking about this stuff. But as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said yesterday, quantum computing is about “solving the unsolvable.” That is, today’s “classical computers,” as the dinosaurs we now use are called by those in this field, are simply too underpowered to solve the biggest problems. Would, in some cases, actually take billions of years to do so. A quantum computer of sufficient scale, meanwhile, could solve those same problems in a matter of hours.

If this sounds awfully high-level, feel free to blame the writer: I can only claim to barely understand what’s happening here. But the types of problems Microsoft and others like IBM and Google are trying to solve with quantum computing are easily understood: lossless power, accelerated AI, global warming, and so on.

“Parallel processing provides exponentially more compute capacity than a typical Von Neumann machine,” Microsoft researcher Krysta Svore told me.

Quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, to store information, instead of the standard bits we’re familiar with in traditional PCs. Where standard bits can store a 1 or a 0, qubits can store more complex information. And each qubit that is added to a quantum computer actually doubles its performance. The trick is scaling this kind of system, as it gets less stable as it grows. And it is here that Microsoft believes it has found a solution, in a more stable type of qubit called a topological qubit.

Again, I don’t really understand this. And it sounds like science fiction to my uneducated ears. But I’m interested in the nature of this kind of work because the scientists and researchers working on quantum computing at different companies are more prone to work together than to compete. And to advance good for the sake of good, not in order to obtain a competitive advantage.

So why now? It appears that Microsoft’s quantum computing efforts are about to take a major step forward.

“We’ve been in this space for about 17 years,” Microsoft corporate vice president Todd Holmdahl told me. “And we’re no longer in a pure research phase. We’re in the engineering phase now.”

Clearly, there is a lot more going on at Microsoft than just software and services, and the firm has chosen this time to provide a status update on its quantum computing efforts for a reason. We appear to be on the cusp of something amazing.


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