- Microsoft Research is exploring quantum computing at its Station Q lab in Santa Barbara.
- Experts and other top tech companies believe that future quantum computers will be much more powerful than today's supercomputers.
- Microsoft researchers believe that an operational quantum computer could be built by 2025.
- Microsoft recently released a software emulator for quantum computers, a crucial step in building the tools needed to run actual quantum computers.
- Microsoft wants to become the market leader in software development platforms for quantum computing.
Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) is not usually considered as a scientific research company, and basic research at Microsoft is less publicized than basic research at other companies such as IBM (NYSE:IBM) and Alphabet Inc-A (NASDAQ:GOOGL). However, Microsoft Research, the research arm of the software giant, is a top-class research organization that, among other pursuits, is exploring quantum computing.
Quantum computers encode information in "qubits" that, instead of being in definite zero or one states like classical bits, can be in weird quantum superpositions of zero and one states, and process information in ways that have no equivalent in classical computing by exploiting subtle quantum phenomena.
Experts believe that future quantum computers will permit solving very complex computational challenges, beyond the reach of even today's most powerful supercomputers, for critical applications in a wide range of sectors including aerospace, biosciences, pharmaceutics, new materials, Big Data analysis, and national security.
Therefore, top tech companies consider quantum computers as a strategic technology and are investing in quantum supercomputing developments to stay on top of Moore’s Law. Recently, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) invested $50 million in a collaboration with Dutch research organizations to accelerate advancements in quantum computing. Google, in partnership with NASA, signed an agreement with quantum computer maker D-Wave, the current sector leader. D-Wave could be heading for an IPO, Wall Street Journal reported in January, but it's also a prime target for acquisition by any of the large tech companies mentioned here.
Microsoft Research has been quietly building up its quantum computing expertise at its Station Q lab in Santa Barbara and through sponsored external research groups working on fundamental physics, advanced materials, and computer engineering.
"[Quantum computing] could tackle problems that would take today’s computers eons to solve in the time it takes to grab a cup of coffee," notes Microsoft, in a detailed communication. "It could have wildest imagination-type applications in fields such as machine learning and medicine, chemistry and cryptography, materials science and engineering. It could allow humans to understand and control the very building blocks of the universe."
Building a quantum computer is an engineering challenge because the finely balanced quantum states on which quantum computing depends are delicate and require carefully controlled environmental conditions to operate reliably. After the first successful proofs of concept, quantum computer researchers are now pushing ahead to the practical realization of operational, robust quantum computers.
According to Station Q Director Michael Freedman, Microsoft "could be developing the foundations for a new kind of technology - sort of a post-silicon age." Freedman's group is pursuing an approach called topological quantum computing that they believe will be more stable than other quantum computing methods.
A new paper co-authored by Microsoft researchers and external scientists argues that an operational quantum computer could be achieved - presumably by Microsoft itself - in 2025. "Recent improvements in control of quantum systems make it seem feasible to finally build a quantum computer within a decade," note the researchers. The paper shows how a combination of quantum algorithms and conventional computing could be employed to solve a computational problem too complex for conventional computing alone.
Microsoft recently released a software emulator for quantum computers, a crucial step in building the tools needed to run actual quantum computers. The emulator is called Language-Integrated Quantum Operations, or LIQUi|> (don't mind the strange characters at the end, meant to make the name look like a typical formula of quantum maths). Using LIQUi|>, computer scientists at Microsoft and elsewhere will be able to use conventional computers to perfect algorithms for future quantum computers.
The LIQUi|> emulator, developed by the Quantum Architectures and Computation Group (QuArC) at Microsoft Research, is available as open source software. In principle, anyone can download, install, and use the emulator on a computer running Windows for "a sneak peek into the future of computing." In practice, Microsoft recommends using a virtual machine running on the Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform.
It seems evident that Microsoft is joining other top tech companies in betting on quantum computing with a clear business strategy in mind: to become the market leader in software development platforms for quantum computing. If quantum computers become the next supercomputing revolution in 2025, Microsoft stock will take a quantum leap.