Microsoft Azure recently announced that its quantum computing research teams have invented “a new kind of qubit” based on elusive, never-before-proven physical properties. According to the Redmond-based company, this will allow it to build scalable quantum computers capable of solving the toughest problems facing humanity.
So is this a breakthrough for the field or just an attempt to address the marketing zeitgeist surrounding quantum computing?
To sort out the answer, we’ll need to take a look at Microsoft‘s quantum computing department, its history, and what it’s actually trying to accomplish.
A complete solution
Microsoft is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you think of the quantum computing industry. Google made its monumental breakthrough in time crystals last year, IBM was the first major tech entity to develop quantum computing systems for consumers and is currently engaged in a tit-for-tat with Google and D-Wave , a quantum company that recently went public, has been building quantum computers for over 20 years.
In order to chart its own course, Microsoft has chosen to follow a different path than any of its competitors. The “new type of qubit” that the Azure team has developed is called a topological qubit and, to our knowledge, it has never been demonstrated before.
According to a company blog post:
Microsoft’s approach has been to seek a topological qubit with built-in protection against ambient noise, which means it should take far fewer qubits to perform useful calculations and correct errors. Topological qubits should also be able to process information quickly, and more than a million of them can be fitted on a wafer smaller than a credit card security chip.
The team responsible for the breakthrough says topological qubits represent the fastest path to industrial-scale quantum computers.
What this tells us is that Microsoft is clearly looking at the quantum computing market and sees itself as the global leader.
While Microsoft is certainly not new to the quantum computing industry, it currently only offers limited quantum services to select Azure partners. Before the qubit’s topological breakthrough, its quantum ambitions were a bit hazy in the crystal ball.
But, now it’s clear that Microsoft intends to develop a complete quantum computing solution with a gate-based system harnessing one million qubits.
It is impossible to determine what a million topological qubits will be capable of in Microsoft’s future quantum computers. The field is too young and just a few months ago the technology used by the company was considered hypothetical.
And the fact that Microsoft is able to go from academic research to publishing a blog post outlining a business path for the technology speaks more to the speed of business than the state of the research.
However, it is clear that Microsoft is putting its full weight behind the technology and there is not much room for prognosis when it comes to developing and scaling quantum systems. These systems require hundreds of millions of investments to build and millions to maintain and operate.
It’s a safe bet that Microsoft is ready to take on all comers if it actually builds hardware capable of scaling a million topological qubits.
As for how long that might take, the team says it’s “more of an engineering route” now that the fundamental technology has been demonstrated.
That tells us we’re probably a decade away from seeing Microsoft’s ambition come to fruition.
But wait there’s more
However, it’s obvious that Microsoft isn’t interested in waiting until 2030 or beyond to get to work. To that end, it plans to offer access to a 1,000-qubit processor by the end of 2023.
This, however, will not be the topological qubit paradigm Azure just invented. Instead, the company has formed a partnership with Pasqal, a company that creates hardware to perform another type of quantum technology called “neutral atom-based” quantum processing.
By a Microsoft Press releaseDr. Krysta Svore, Distinguished Engineer, VP Quantum Software at Microsoft, described the partnership as a way to immediately bring quantum technologies to customers of both companies:
Azure Quantum is a unified, open cloud ecosystem for quantum innovation, enabling customers to make an impact with a diverse selection of quantum hardware, software, and solutions.
Pasqal’s neutral atom quantum processors are a welcome addition to this ecosystem, providing Azure Quantum users with new computing possibilities, including analog quantum computing, opening new avenues to pursue quantum impacts in the real world.
The partnership with Pasqal reinforces Microsoft’s greatest weakness in the quantum industry by giving it a mid-term solution to fill the gap between 2023 and whenever the future arrives in the form of a massively scalable quantum computing system.
The winner takes… a few
Whether Google’s time crystals, D-Wave’s new gate-based solutions, IBM’s iterative approach, Microsoft’s new topological qubits, or some dark horse technology will ultimately prevail is anybody’s guess. .
But it’s unlikely that we’ll end up with multiple viable approaches. Eventually, it will make more sense, financially speaking, for hardware manufacturers to be on the same page. The next ten years should set the stage for the ultimate judgment.
However, quantum computing is not a zero-sum game. Microsoft is poised to take a dominant share of the big market, but it’s unlikely that a single company will end up eclipsing the competition.
Just like the artificial intelligence market, quantum computing requires tailor-made solutions on a case-by-case basis. IBM, Google, D-Wave, and Microsoft won’t be filling store shelves with general-purpose quantum computers anytime soon. They will be vying for massive partnerships with lucrative long-term contracts.
Each business will need to build on its strengths to find its unique path to potential notoriety. And for Microsoft, that means connecting partners through its Azure ecosystem and securing high-paying government contracts.
From where we are, Microsoft seems to have caught up with the competition. That doesn’t mean victory is guaranteed – there are no guarantees in theoretical physics – but it would be silly to count the house Bill Gates built in any tech race.
Neural’s point of view: The Pasqal partnership puts it in direct competition for the top spot today, and Azure’s research teams make it a favorite going forward. We’d give Microsoft the edge over Google and IBM in a marathon because of the Redmond company’s no-drama approach to landing big government projects.