Competition is increasing in the world of quantum computing. Tech giants like IBM and Google are striving to build prototypes and get a foot in the market. Joining the fray, Microsoft is going way beyond the blackboard. They are stepping away from theory and are putting up an expensive effort to build a working quantum computer prototype.
Before we go any further, let’s take a quick look at what quantum mechanics is. This relatively recent field of science delves into the world we know on a sub-atomic level. The curious and most significant finding is that particles can exist, and not-exist, at the same time. This on/off state is what Microsoft systems engineers are using to replace the older binary electronic equivalent.
Microsoft is pushing forward on a different path than their competitors. It's called topological quantum computing. They are using a technique called "braiding". This is where particles known as anyons, 2-dimensional particles, are used instead of particles with 3 spatial dimensions to create logic gates capable of a third state other than "on" or "off". A qubit (quantum bit) can exist in this third state in either a superposition or simultaneously "on" and "off".
Todd Holmdahl, a veteran engineer on the project says he believes Microsoft is "close enough to designing the basic qubit building block" and "begin engineering a complete computer. Holmdahl also says,
Once we get the first qubit figured out, we have a road map that allows us to go to thousands of qubits in a rather straightforward way.
To help get the project off the ground Microsoft brought in physicists Leo Kouwenhoven from Delft University, Charles Marcus from the University of Copenhagen, David Reilly of the University of Sydney, and Matthias Troyer from E.T.H. Zurich. This team is being called the Artificial Intelligence and Research Group and is lead by Harry Shum, one of Microsoft's top engineers.
The researchers are confident that the advances in quantum science over the past few years will put them closer to the development of the qubit. So far they've made advances in controlling the materials necessary to for qubits. Dr. Marcus says:
“The magic recipe involves a combination of semiconductors and superconductors.”
This grand effort by Microsoft may usher the new age of computing and allow us to take on questions that transistor-based computing can't answer. Team member Dr. Kouwenhoven says,
“My dream application for a quantum computer would be a machine that could solve problems in quantum physics.”