As new research shows that quantum computers are within reach, at least at small scales with a small number of qubits, Microsoft is rising as one of the companies to bet big on quantum computers.
A New Quantum Era May Soon Be Upon Us
The reason why Microsoft, as well as Google (opens in new tab), IBM, and other big companies are starting to invest heavily in quantum computing is because it could provide a big boost to machine learning, an already hot investment category with significant potential.
The new “tech wars” are probably going to be won by those with the most know-how and computing resources for machine learning. Quantum computers could give some machine learning players a significant edge over those without quantum computers.
Beyond using quantum computers to boost machine learning computation, they could also be used to break virtually all of the existing encryption. Because of this, there are already efforts underway to implement quantum-resistant encryption algorithms in browsers such as Chrome, but those new algorithms still need to be proven.
It may take at least a few more years for cryptography researchers to see whether the new algorithms are safe to use or whether they can be broken. Google has already promised a ~50 qubit universal quantum computer in the next few years, but it will probably be a few more generations before it can do any real damage to existing encryption.
Quantum computers could also be used to simulate molecules, which could make drug research much more accurate. It would ultimately make drugs more precise and more effective, and also cheaper due to a much faster turnaround.
“There is a real opportunity to apply these computers to things that I’ll call material sciences of physical systems,” said Todd Holmdahl, who will lead the new scientific and engineering efforts to create the first topological quantum computer, as well as the software running on it.“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,” he explained.
Holmdahl has previously had key roles in turning the Xbox, Kinect, and HoloLens projects from pure research into real products.
Microsoft’s Topological Quantum Computer
Microsoft intends to build a “topological” quantum computer that uses two-dimensional particles, called anyons, whose world lines pass around one another to form three-dimensional “braids” (with the three dimensions including the two spacial dimensions of anyons and one temporal dimension).
Unlike some other quantum computers that use trapped quantum particles, the topological quantum computer is supposed to create more stable qubits. How to make stable qubits has been the bulk of quantum research for the past few decades, because stable qubits are vital for a practical quantum computer.
“A topological design is less impacted by changes in its environment,” noted Holmdahl.
Microsoft has already been working on developing software for quantum computers (opens in new tab), recognizing that quantum computing software will be just as important as the hardware. The software is what will give quantum computers all the “killer apps” that will be necessary to make them useful. Some of the projects to which we’ll want to give a quantum computing boost will be obvious, while others won’t be, until we try them out.
“My guess is that back in the 40s and 50s, 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 added.
To make its first topological quantum computer, Microsoft is bringing on board multiple quantum computing experts from top universities in Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Australia. Microsoft hopes that by combining their theoretical research with its own engineering expertise, it can create a topological quantum computer more quickly.