Microsoft is doubling down on its commitment to the field of quantum computing, making a strong bet that it is possible to create a scalable quantum computer using what is called a topological qubit.
Microsoft executive Todd Holmdahl will lead the scientific and engineering effort to create scalable quantum hardware and software.
“I think we’re at an inflection point in which we are ready to go from research to engineering,” says Holmdahl, who is corporate vice-president of Microsoft’s quantum programme.
Microsoft has hired two leaders in the field of quantum computing, Leo Kouwenhoven and Charles Marcus. The company also will soon bring on two other leaders in the field, Matthias Troyer and David Reilly.
Microsoft’s approach to building a quantum computer is based on a type of qubit – or unit of quantum information – called a topological qubit.
Qubits are the key building block to a quantum computer. Using qubits, researchers believe that quantum computers could very quickly process multiple solutions to a problem at the same time, rather than sequentially.
One of the biggest challenges to building a working quantum computer is how picky qubits can be. A quantum system can only remain in a quantum state when it’s not being disturbed, so quantum computers are built to be in incredibly cold, unique environments.
The Microsoft team believes that topological qubits are better able to withstand challenges such as heat or electrical noise, allowing them to remain in a quantum state longer. That, in turn, makes them much more practical and effective.
“A topological design is less impacted by changes in its environment,” Holmdahl says.
At the same time as Microsoft is working to build a quantum computer, it’s also creating the software that could run on it. The goal is to have a system that can begin to efficiently solve complex problems from day one.
“Similar to classical high-performance computing, we need not just hardware but also optimized software,” Troyer says.
To the team, that makes sense: The two systems can work together to solve certain problems, and the research from each can help the other side.
“A quantum computer is much more than the qubits,” Reilly said. “It includes all of the classical hardware systems, interfaces and connections to the outside world.”
With effective quantum hardware and software, quantum experts say they could create vast computing power that could address some of the world’s most pressing problems, from climate change and hunger to a multitude of medical challenges.
That’s partly because the computers could emulate physical systems, speeding up things like drug development or our understanding of plant life. Researchers say the intelligent cloud could be exponentially more powerful, similar to how cell phones evolved into smart phones.
“There is a real opportunity to apply these computers to things that I’ll call material sciences of physical systems,” Holmdahl says. “A lot of these problems are intractable on a classical computer, but on a quantum computer we believe that they are tractable in a reasonable period of time.”
Kouwenhoven says that applies to the field of quantum physics itself, such as research into dark matter and other fundamental questions about our understanding of the universe itself. “I would find it interesting to go back to my science background and use the quantum computer to solve quantum problems.”
Then there’s the vast unknown. Computer scientists will often point out that when scientists invented the very first transistor, they had no way of conceiving of an application like a smart phone.
“My guess is that back in the 1940s and 1950s, when they were thinking about the first transistor, they didn’t necessarily know how this thing was going to be used. And I think we’re a little bit like that,” Holmdahl says.
“The opportunity to be at the beginning of the next transistor is not lost on me,” he adds.