On Monday, Microsoft announced that its cloud computing platform will soon offer access to the most exotic hardware of all: quantum computers.
Microsoft is one of several technology giants investing in quantum computing that, by processing data using quantum-mechanical processes, promises unprecedented computing power. Currently, the company is preparing its Azure cloud computing service in order to offer individual customers access to three prototypes of quantum computers: from the engineering conglomerate Honeywell and two startups, IonQ- University of Maryland, and QCI- Yale University.
Microsoft claims that these quantum computers are not yet ready to do useful work. Existing quantum equipment is not ready for large capacities. But, like IBM and Google rivals, Microsoft executives say developers and corporations should start interacting with quantum algorithms and hardware right now to help the industry understand what these technologies are for.
“We know that we are not going to come up with a whole range of possible solutions; we need a global quantum community, ”says Krista Swore, general manager of Microsoft Quantum.
Microsoft’s new service, called Azure Quantum, combines the quantum programming tools previously released by the company with its cloud service. Encoders can run quantum code on simulated quantum equipment or on real quantum equipment from Honeywell, IonQ, or QCI.
Microsoft announced a new service on Monday at its Ignite conference in Orlando, announcing that it will be launched in the coming months. Company partners will use their quantum computers at their own facilities, but will connect them to the Microsoft cloud via the Internet. Microsoft has its own long-term quantum research program, but it does not yet produce any equipment for quantum computing.
Azure Quantum resembles the IBM service, which has been offering free and paid access to quantum computer prototypes since 2016. Google, which last week announced that one of its quantum processors had reached a milestone known as “quantum excellence,” surpassed the top Supercomputer, said it would soon offer remote access to quantum equipment for some companies.
Microsoft is different in that it offers access to several different quantum computing technologies, which can provide insight into the future of the quantum computing market.
Since working with quantum equipment is difficult, it is expected that most companies using it will do so through a cloud service, rather than buying or creating their own quantum computers. IBM and Google so far have only talked about giving customers access to their own hardware.
Microsoft’s model is more like the existing computer industry, where cloud providers allow customers to use processors from companies such as Intel and AMD, said William Hurley, CEO of Strangeworks startup.
Microsoft hardware partners are two leading, but different ways to create quantum computers. Honeywell and IonQ encode data using individual ions trapped in electromagnetic fields, while QCI uses superconducting metal circuits – an approach also endorsed by IBM and Google.
Microsoft’s quantum cloud model can also solve the problem for companies running quantum equipment, such as Honeywell or other startups that don’t have their own Cloud business, and it can be difficult to attract customers. “This allows us to focus on what we do best — to make best-in-class quantum computers,” says Peter Chapman, CEO of IonQ. One of the first startup clients was Dow Chemical, which wants to use quantum computers to solve problems in the field of chemistry.
Quantum computers are built from unusual devices called qubits. They work with digital data in the same way as components in conventional equipment. But since qubits encode 1 and 0 into quantum mechanical effects, such as the rotation of subatomic particles, they can go into the third state, which is a superposition of 1 and 0 at the same time. This state, unlike everything that happens in the everyday human world, allows the use of mathematics, which can speed up calculations that are impossible for ordinary computers.
The main problem for the quantum industry is that qubits are very unreliable. Quantum-mechanical processes are very delicate and easily broken by thermal or electromagnetic noise. Currently, the largest chips of IBM, Google and Intel have about 50 qubits.
Microsoft is betting on a theoretical version of a critical device called a topological qubit, which is predicted to be more stable than existing qubits. It is based on the manipulation of a long theorized, but only recently noticed subatomic phenomenon, called the Majorana zero regime – after the Italian physicist who mysteriously disappeared in 1938.
Although a critical phenomenon has been discovered, Microsoft’s topological qubit has not yet been created, despite claims by company top manager Todd Holmdal that he will be ready by the end of last year.
Despite the lack of its own hardware for quantum computing, Microsoft on Monday introduced a new computer chip. This is a regular, non-quantum chip, but specifically designed to operate at lower temperatures, able to help control the expected quantum processors when they appear.
Like Google and IBM’s current quantum equipment, future Microsoft qubits will require cooling to near absolute zero in a special refrigerator. Creating a computer chip that can continue to work while it is located next to the quantum processor can reduce the number of control wires that must be connected to the electronics outside the refrigerator. Google, whose quantum chips are controlled only by external electronics, said last week that wiring was a serious problem for this technology.