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article imageMicrosoft ready to start building scalable quantum computers

By James Walker     Nov 21, 2016 in Technology
Microsoft has announced it is progressing from simply researching quantum computing to actually building machines that run on "qubits." Quantum computing could open up new avenues of scientific research by offering vastly greater performance.
Traditional computers are based on binary digits which can be "off" or "on" at any given time. From this principle, the rest of computing logic can be built, using transistors as simple gateways. Each transistor can either be on or off, but never both at the same time.
Quantum computing changes this idea in a way that may appear profound. Unlike classical processors, quantum chips hold their bits in a superposition. In effect, this means the bit is zero and one simultaneously, which can lead to dramatic speed increases when computing certain kinds of problem.
It's still very early in the path to mainstream quantum computing. Much remains unknown about exactly how quantum computers will operate or how they should be built. Microsoft has announced it intends to begin creating an early quantum system, informing the world in a blog post that an "inflection point" in development has been reached.
"I think we're at an inflection point in which we are ready to go from research to engineering," said Microsoft corporate vice president of quantum computing Todd Holmdahl. "None of these things are a given. But you have to take some amount of risk in order to make a big impact in the world, and I think we're at the point now that we have the opportunity to do that."
Holmdahl has been instrumental to some of Microsoft's most successful public creations. He played a key role in the development of the original Xbox and later went on to build Kinect and HoloLens. More recently, he's been developing a roadmap to take Microsoft's research into quantum computing turn it into a scalable machine. The aim is to create a quantum computer which could feasibly be used for problem solving.
Microsoft has hired four leaders in the quantum computing field to assist with the challenge ahead, including Leo Kouwenhoven and Charles Marcus. Kouwenhover, of the Delft University of Technogy in the Netherlands, was the founding director of QuTech, the Advanced Research Center on Quantum Technologies. Marcus is the Villum Kann Rasmussen Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and director of the Danish National Research Foundation-sponsored Center for Quantum Devices.
Microsoft recognised the two as leading much of quantum computing research to date. The pair have already collaborated with the company's quantum team on multiple occasions of the span of several years. They will now be joining Microsoft full time while retaining their university affiliations. Marcus and Kouwenhoven will be joined by Matthias Troyer and David Reilly, two other established quantum computing leaders.
Companies are viewing quantum computing so optimistically because of the range of problems it could help to solve. They could be used to emulate physical systems and accelerate the development of new drugs or human understanding of life. Microsoft noted it could make intelligent cloud systems "exponentially more powerful," likening it to the evolution of cell phones into smartphones.
"There is a real opportunity to apply these computers to things that I’ll call material sciences of physical systems," said Holmdahl. "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."
The company is also aware there's a "vast unknown" ahead, noting that the scientists who invented the transistor could never have conceived the smartphone era. The introduction of quantum systems might pave the way for a similar technology revolution in the decades ahead. In the shorter term, Microsoft's work to create a scalable quantum computer will help to push research in the field further ahead, driving both computer science and quantum theory forward.
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