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At Ignite, Nadella Shines a Spotlight on Quantum Computing

Quantum computing may be years away from a product perspective, but Microsoft wants customers to start thinking about it and to keep Microsoft in mind as an important actor in the field.

At the Microsoft Ignite 2017 show with 25,000 IT customer attendees, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella devoted a large portion of one of his highest-profile keynotes of the year to quantum computing. Speaking on Monday morning, Nadella's big finish for his talk was a description of the potential for quantum computing and a discussion with a panel of Microsoft researchers about the company's progress in the field.

Nadella's future technology discussion was balanced by an exceptionally large amount of more immediately practical news. For example, Microsoft's Ignite announcements included general availability for SQL Server 2017 running on Linux, Windows and Docker, the availability of the Azure Stack from OEM partners, new SKUs of Microsoft 365, new laptops from partners running Windows 10 S, a private preview of Bing for business, concrete steps in the integration of the Microsoft Graph and the LinkedIn Graph, machine learning enhancements, new security capabilities and other things.

In addition to a raft of near-term product announcements, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella highlighted the company's long-range efforts around quantum computing at Microsoft Ignite. (Source: Microsoft.)

Quantum computing, if Microsoft or anyone else can deliver it, would represent a revolutionary change in the fundamental model of computing by making use of the essential weirdness of matter at the sub-atomic level, such as superposition, uncertainty and entanglement. In essence, bits of information in quantum computing, known as qubits, could exist in multiple states at the same time, allowing for massive advances in computational power.

Even Microsoft's hyperscale Azure datacenters built on classical computers can't tackle certain types of problems that quantum computers might be able to address, Nadella said. "We still have many unsolved problems, unsolved computational problems," said Nadella, ticking off challenges like finding a catalyst for capturing carbon from the atmosphere, enzymes for more efficient food production and drug interactions for precision medicine.

Nadella used a cornfield maze analogy to describe the basics of quantum computing. "The way the classical computer would try and tackle this is to start, trace a path, hit an obstacle, retrace, trace another path, retrace, trace another path, retrace. So it's this brute-force mechanism," he said. "But a quantum computer changes this. A quantum computer enables you to encode information, not just as ones or zeros, but as ones and zeros simultaneously. That unlocks amazing parallelism. ... You could take a quantum computer and solve some of these unsolvable problems because they approach it with an amazing power. They take every path of the corn maze simultaneously."

Michael Freedman, who runs the Microsoft Research Station Q in Santa Barbara, Calif., described Microsoft's approach, known as a topological quantum computer, which is different from the quantum computing approach taken by IBM, Google and others.

"Microsoft's qubit will be based on a new form of matter called the topological matter that also has this property that the information stored in the matter is stored globally. You can't find the information in any particular place. Now how does that work? Well, it's based on an idea called electron fractionalization. With the basic information, is the electron there, or not there? It's fractionalized and it's spread out," Freedman said, adding that spreading out the information protects it.

A panel joining Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on stage at Ignite to discuss quantum computing included (from left) Michael Freedman, Microsoft technical fellow, Station Q; Leo Kouwenhoven, Charlie Marcus, Microsoft principal researchers, Qfab; and Krysta Svore, Microsoft principal researcher, QuArC Software. (Source: Microsoft.)

The research team showed some of the quantum hardware it's been working with on stage and in pictures, but Microsoft did not attempt any kind of demo during the keynote. For the record, Microsoft's quantum computing technology requires temperatures near absolute zero to function.

Nadella asked the panel of Microsoft researchers a question typical of CEOs funding research. "Where are we on this journey?" Nadella said in a polite form of the question, "When can we ship a product?" Microsoft has already been funding research on quantum computing for 12 years.

In response, a Microsoft Qfab principal researcher, Charlie Marcus, detailed the challenges. "Each one of these steps is actually very hard. It may seem like making the chip with the [fractionalized electrons] is the hard part or thinking of the idea is the hard part. But actually they're all hard. Everything from the software...to the cryogenic engineering is extremely difficult," Marcus said.

"So where are we? We've invented new materials that support [fractionalized electrons]. We've built the chips, they're back in our labs in the refrigerator, down at the bottom of the refrigerator with our students and colleagues working hard to check off the list of all the properties that they're supposed to have to fractionalize the electrons and verify that they're at the two ends of the chip, and the work is going forward," Marcus said.

For an idea that's been circulating in research circles for decades, the progress is also fairly quick. The first proof of the fractionalized electron concepts Microsoft is pursuing only occurred in 2012, according to Leo Kouwenhoven, another Qfab principal researcher.

For Microsoft developers and IT enthusiasts, something relatively concrete will be arriving soon, however. One of the panelists, Krysta Svore, Microsoft principal researcher of QuArC Software, announced that Microsoft would release free tools by the end of this year to allow people to start experimenting with the concepts and programming models of quantum computing.

"We're offering a local simulator that you can run on your laptop or your desktop that allows you to simulate around 30 qubits for your quantum applications. And then I'm really excited about a state-of-the-art, Azure-based simulator that we have that enables you to simulate around 40 qubits in Azure," Svore said. In addition to the simulators, the tools will include a programming language and debugger for quantum computing, with integration into Visual Studio.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.