Microsoft’s Quantum Computing (Poorly) Explained

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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Conversation 18 comments

  • Bats

    26 September, 2017 - 11:57 am

    <p>Uh oh….I think Paul is ready to declare Microsoft to be the leader in Quantum computing. Lol.</p>

  • alaskanjackson

    26 September, 2017 - 12:04 pm

    <p>What MSFT disclosed at Ignite is likely a look backwards at where they are in the research. That is I believe they are further along then demonstrated on stage. As important is the spin-off effect of research like this. I am imagine some compelling patents and products will emerge (or maybe already have) as a result of the 12-15 year effort. I appreciate you and Brads insight and coverage of the event. Be well.</p>

  • MikeGalos

    26 September, 2017 - 12:23 pm

    <p>Microsoft has had the huge advantage of senior management who understand the value of having a pure research arm. Microsoft Research does work on any topic the researchers find interesting in their field and their results are made available to everyone. </p><p>Sadly the other major technology firms haven't followed the model that Xerox PARC, IBM Watson Lab and AT&amp;T Bell Labs pioneered and that drove virtually all of modern technology.</p><p><br></p>

    • suhailali

      Premium Member
      26 September, 2017 - 1:02 pm

      <blockquote><em>I agree. Microsoft doesn't get enough credit for pure research without requiring the research turn into a product. Microsoft is bad at bringing new technology to market but their research helps everyone.</em></blockquote><blockquote><a href="#181678"><em>In reply to MikeGalos:</em></a></blockquote><p><br></p>

  • mikeghou

    26 September, 2017 - 12:34 pm

    <p>Leave it to an art major to explain serious science! ☺️</p><p><br></p><p>Just joshing. I have an MS in math and haven't figured it out either. </p>

  • Mark from CO

    Premium Member
    26 September, 2017 - 12:51 pm

    <p>Paul:</p><p><br></p><p>We the readers should not be fooled to think that Microsoft is in the lead in this new area of computing. We would be naïve to think Microsoft's competitors have less than world-class efforts underway. An Microsoft's track record of turning truly innovative research into useful mass market products is poor. </p><p><br></p><p>Mark from CO</p>

  • mikiem

    26 September, 2017 - 1:47 pm

    <p>FWIW &amp; all that, my very limited understanding is that it's a huge leap, jumping from the pure electronics used in computers today to advanced physics. And it's faster on at least two fronts… one is the speed at which things work, which might get a further boost someday from optics [light travels faster than electrical current], and as noted, it's not limited by the binary nature of switches [transistors]. The latter requires a new way of coding, perhaps using AI. The physical aspects — what's needed to make it feasible [e.g. super cooling] — mean that there will be relatively few, like supercomputers today. </p><p><br></p><p>Buying time on centralized resources is what Microsoft's all about with their cloud services, so Quantum Computing is IMHO a very good fit. Another advance, this one in data transfer, is also coming from physics research — think instant. </p>

  • Eric Rasmussen

    Premium Member
    26 September, 2017 - 1:57 pm

    <p>In Physics, all particles exist in a state of "superposition" from one moment of time to the next. They collapse into a quantifiable position based on probabilities and interactions with other particles in superposition. While in superposition, the particle is essentially in all possible positions simultaneously. Once an interaction happens, it collapses into one of the "most probable" positions. Qubits take advantage of this by allowing contained particles to go into superposition and then managing the interactions to cause a collapse according to the desired model. The hard part is constructing a model that represents a specific algorithm.</p><p><br></p><p>As an example, RSA encryption works by using pairs of primes that have a special relationship to each other. If you can build a model that restricts input numbers such that the only outputs are pairs of primes with this relationship, with enough qubits you could instantly find all possible pairs of primes with this relationship. If you restrict one value to be a specific number, the other qubits will instantly collapse into the paired prime. This makes breaking RSA crypto simple and quick. These are the kinds of problem quantum computers are good at solving. They are bad at solving sequential steps like the computers we all know today.</p>

  • Mestiphal

    26 September, 2017 - 2:17 pm

    <p>I probably know less about quantum computing than Paul, but the idea of quantum physics is an atom that has a positive charge, which can change to a negative charge instantaneously. I read somewhere that applied to computing, it's a bit which in a similar way can hold a 1 and or a 0 at the same time. so with our regular computing we need two bits to have 01 but with quantum computing those two bits can represent 00, 01, 10 and 11 all at the same time, being that each bit is both positive and negative.</p>

  • derylmccarty

    Premium Member
    26 September, 2017 - 2:26 pm

    <p>Paul, your and Brad's mission, should you choose to accept it, is to: </p><p><br></p><p> (a) interpret the language of the Microsoft quantum physicist into everyday answers to questions like:</p><p><br></p><p> (1) who cares?</p><p> (2) how does this impact me or my business? </p><p> (3) what is the return on investment of my buying new stuff and changing a business model? And, </p><p><br></p><p>(b) translate the language of the Microsoft quantum dreamer into a glimpse of a near future to let me and others dream of opportunities and then let the rest of Microsoft and everyday homes and businesses build on those opportunities. </p><p><br></p><p>So, that means a brush up on math and physics skills and for goodness sake, get a tour of the basement levels below Garage and HoloLens and talk to those folks and talk in depth to the dreamer-in-chief. No, not Satya, Bill. </p><p><br></p><p>Who'd a thunk it? A 1980's company built by a dreamer (Bill), a schemer (a schemer is a project manger type – Paul Allen) and a screamer (no further identification necessary) is relevant to the future – again. And you get to paint their company's portrait – again. </p><p><br></p><p>This message will self destruct in 5 picoseconds.</p><p><br></p><p> </p>

  • MutualCore

    26 September, 2017 - 4:34 pm

    <p>So another programming language to learn – Q#.</p>

  • Roger Ramjet

    26 September, 2017 - 4:50 pm

    <p>fwiw, both Nadella and Bill Gates admitted they don't understand it either.</p>

  • karlinhigh

    Premium Member
    27 September, 2017 - 11:21 am

    <p>Cartoon computer technician: <em>"Well, it looks like your computer is broken in every way possible, simultaneously."</em><img src=""></p>

  • M. S. Chan

    27 September, 2017 - 3:28 pm

    <p>Maybe Nadella should invite Justin Trudeau (Canadian Prime Minister) to talk about quantum computing (haha).</p><p><br></p><p>See here:</p&gt;

  • jwpear

    Premium Member
    28 September, 2017 - 2:30 pm

    <p>Not being terribly knowledgeable on quantum computing, I find this rather scary. People always see the good in things, but no doubt, this can be abused–AI that finds humans to have no value or value only a slaves, malicious actors who are able to spy on everything without constraint, etc.</p>

  • chrisrut

    Premium Member
    28 September, 2017 - 6:00 pm

    <p>"We appear to be on the cusp of something amazing."</p><p>Wouldn't that be cool?</p><p>Perhaps this presages some specific revelation – aspirations achieved with hololens-like secrecy but without hololens-like failure to deliver on the sizzle. Anyone remember when some players left MS soon after Nadella took over – to do "personal" things – and were never heard from again? Who were those guys? I vote for sci-fi scenarios: natural language interaction and/or AI-focused authentication. Perhaps both, since both spring from the same well of neural nets at quantum speed… </p><p><br></p>

  • RonV42

    Premium Member
    30 September, 2017 - 9:37 am

    <p>Quantum computing is niche but he applications for it's use are growing. IBM has a great portal to submit experiments with a number of public available qubits. With enough qubits you can track and predict all possible positions of matter in our solar systems at any given time. Such calculations are impossible in linear computing.</p>


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