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January 29, 2018updated 18 Jul 2022 12:13pm

Microsoft sets 5 year quantum computing deadline

Microsoft is "imminently close" to producing its first quantum computing chip, the company claims.

By Sabrina Dougall

Microsoft believes it will pull ahead of the competition in quantum computing, with a crucial announcement expected within weeks. The tech giant is set to announce that its faster processing power will amount to practical applications of quantum computing within just five years, the FT reports.

Google, in turn, is expected to announce its own breakthrough in the coming weeks; the demonstration of its quantum processor solving a more difficult problem than any classical computer has to date.

Microsoft’s yet-to-be-released processor has “much better” error-correction than competitor machines, Todd Holmdahl, head of Microsoft’s quantum team, told the FT.

“We have an opportunity to solve a set of problems that couldn’t be solved before,”  Todd Holmdahl told the FT, “On a classical computer they would take the life of the universe to solve.”

Holmdahl, who led the team which created the billion-dollar-revenue Xbox, said on a 2017 Microsoft blog: “We’re doing everything from the physics to the control plane to the software that runs the computer to the algorithms that you need to do interesting things like quantum chemistry, to the applications for personalized medicine or helping with climate change.”

The claim may come as a surprise; unlike IBM, Microsoft has yet to prove it can produce a functional qubit – a feat which Holmdahl claims his team is “imminently close” to accomplishing.

By comparison, IBM claimed it had become the first company to successfully build a 50-qubit machine in November. Its engineers also looking to integrate 20-qubit computation into its cloud.

D-Wave, backed by Jeff Bezos, also considers itself a leader in the quantum computing field. In 2017, the Canadian firm said it created a quantum chip with more than 2000 qubits. On Thursday, D-Wave shipped its $15m quantum computer, the 2000Q, to cybersecurity firm Temporal Defense Systems. However, some scientists are incredulous that D-Wave’s hardware could attain exponentially faster computation than regular processors.

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Intel, on the other hand, forecasts a ten-year wait until companies progress beyond “toy systems”, Mike Mayberry, head of Intel Labs, told the FT.

Microsoft’s engineering approach “focuses on topological quantum computing through Majorana fermions,” the firm said on its website. This involves growing specialized nanowires and atomically thin conducting layers.

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In November, Microsoft unveiled details of a new programming language created specifically for quantum developers: Q#. The corporation hopes to use future quantum technology to improve its Azure cloud platform.

Yet even if the companies reach their much-anticipated milestones, there will nevertheless be a long way to go before quantum computers make their way into data centres or office blocks. Quantum functionality requires extremely low temperatures, and the machinery is intensely sensitive, making scalability a tough nut to crack.

“These devices operate at temperatures almost 200 times colder than the farthest reaches of outer space,” said Microsoft.

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