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Microsoft inches closer to commercially-viable quantum computing

Microsoft's quest to create a powerful quantum computer comes closer to reality with the help of an elementary particle.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • Researchers at Microsoft are competing with Alphabet, IBM, and others to create less error-prone quantum computers.
  • Microsoft is taking a different approach than other companies, believing their method will allow them to make quantum computers that are commercially viable.

Microsoft is slowly making headway in the race toward commercially-viable quantum computing, tapping into the unique properties of a certain particle to address issues engineers at many tech companies have been struggling with for decades.

Alphabet, IBM, and a number of smaller companies are all competing for "quantum supremacy," a disputed term referring to the point at which quantum computers will be able to handle calculations beyond the capacity of the world's best supercomputers.

"[Quantum supremacy] is very catchy, but it's a bit confusing and oversells what quantum computers will be able to do," Simon Benjamin, a quantum expert at Oxford University, told MIT's Technology Review. He added that even as the abilities of quantum computers improve, classic computers will still be faster and cheaper.

"Using a quantum computer would be like chartering a jumbo jet to cross the road," Benjamin said.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of quantum computing (Tech Pro Research)

Quantum computing relies on quantum bits or qubits, which store information. Classic computers store information as either 1s or 0s, but qubits are special because they "can exist in multiple states of 1 and 0 at the same time—a phenomenon known as superposition," according to MIT's Technology Review.

"What this boils down to is that even though a few extra bits make only a modest difference to a classical computer's power, adding extra qubits to a quantum machine can increase its computational power exponentially," they wrote. "That's why, in principle, it doesn't take all that many qubits to outgun even the most powerful of today's supercomputers."

The problems come in creating and maintaining qubits, which require conditions akin to outer space and can lose their fragile quantum state, making them more likely to be significantly error-prone, according to MIT While scientists and engineers are working to deal with this through software and additional qubits, the exponential errors that come with higher numbers of qubits have kept commercially-viable quantum computing a distant dream.

"If you had 50 or 100 qubits and they really worked well enough, and were fully error-corrected—you could do unfathomable calculations that can't be replicated on any classical machine, now or ever," Robert Schoelkopf, a Yale professor and founder of a company called Quantum Circuits, told the MIT Technology Review. "The flip side to quantum computing is that there are exponential ways for it to go wrong."

Alphabet announced earlier this month, at the annual American Physical Society meeting in Los Angeles, that their quantum computing chip "Bristlecone" had 72 qubits, surpassing IBM's 50-qubit processor released last year. But the more qubits you add, the more potential errors that come along with it, leading some researchers to ask how the computers can be trusted with calculations that cannot be checked by any other machine.

Alphabet has tried to address this issue by performing calculations right at the edge of what most supercomputers are capable of, believing that if they can show they can get that far, the addition of even one more qubit would prove the quantum computer could vastly outperform a classic computer.

Microsoft is trying something different than the other companies, focusing their attention on Majorana fermions, particles that can be their own antiparticle, according to Bloomberg. When these particles are used in quantum computers, the error rates are significantly lower than those of the machines heralded by Alphabet and IBM.

The goal, according to Microsoft, is to eventually rent access to quantum computers for a variety of purposes, including artificial intelligence (A), drug design through chemistry, and financial industry models. While Alphabet and IBM are racing to get to quantum supremacy first, Microsoft is focusing on how to make quantum computers viable machines that can be used in any number of fields and produce accurate information, the Bloomberg report noted.

Microsoft has not even been able to create a qubit yet, but they believe that once they can, their quantum computer will be 10,000 times more accurate than anything currently being produced by Alphabet, IBM, and D-Wave Systems Inc., which was the first company to sell limited-application quantum computers.

Todd Holmdahl, a Microsoft executive, told Bloomberg that they are at most five years away from producing a quantum computer that could be sold on the market.

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Image: iStockphoto/Bet_Noire

About Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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