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Microsoft's 'do more' vision of quantum computing

Per Corporate Vice-President of Microsoft's quantum computing program Todd Holmdahl (opens in new tab), they're "at an inflection point in which [they] are ready to go from research to engineering." This could result in a historic exponential leap in computing.

Microsoft's venture into this unknown future is a baby step into what even sci-fi fans would have thought impossible in our lifetimes. Granted, we won't see a useful quantum computer tomorrow. Still, Microsoft's laying the groundwork for a profound "quantum-computing-as-a-platform" future.

Microsoft wants to be the world's quantum computing platform.

Before considering the implications of Microsoft's ambition, we'll answer the question, "What's quantum computing?" We'll then entertain its profound impact.

Microsoft is a platform company. With the Cloud, an aggressive Windows 10 push and the Universal Windows Platform, Redmond wants to be the platform for personal computing.

With that in mind, what might that ambition look like if Microsoft becomes the world's platform of history-defining quantum computing-based tools and services?

What is Quantum Computing?

Quantum computing is where computer science and quantum physics meet. Scientists like Isaac Newton gave us an understanding of how the physical universe behaves on a macro, or large scale. At the microscopic level, however, particles behave differently. On a molecular scale, particles can enter a quantum state called superposition where they exist in two distinct states simultaneously.

Superposition's impact on computing is profound. Current computers process individual units of data or bits, which present as either 1s or 0s.

Qubits and superposition increase computation power exponentially.

Today's computing is limited to a linear flow of 1s and 0s that must be processed sequentially.

A quantum computer will use quantum bits, or qubits. Qubits, because of superposition, can exist as both a 1 and 0 simultaneously. Thus, qubits can do twice as many calculations as a bit. Consequently, a quantum computer, with strings of qubits, could solve in a fraction of the time the kind of problems that would take conventional computers years.

Building a Quantum Computer

Holmdahl heads the team of researchers and engineers tasked with making this scalable quantum hardware and software a reality. As Microsoft is leveraging its strength as a software company in this venture Matthias Troyer, a leader in the field, said:

Similar to classical high-performance computing, we need not just hardware but also optimized software.

Microsoft has deliberately torn down walls between disciplines to bring the necessary players to the table. Quantum computing expert, Charles Marcus added:

I knew that to get...to the point where you started to be able to create machines that have never existed before, it was necessary to change the way we did business. We need scientists, engineers of all sorts, technicians, programmers, all working on the same team.

As the team takes shape, they're working on producing a topological qubit system; which yields a more stable version of a qubit. Holmdahl shared, "A topological design is less impacted by changes in its environment." This allows the qubit to persist in the required quantum state longer.

The do more (quantum) company

CEO Satya Nadella said this of Microsoft's vision to help individuals and organizations to do more:

We're the company that enables people to do more, play, have more fun, create more. Sometimes we refer to ourselves as the "do more" company....I want us to be able to take that focus and innovation forward.

As a company that provides an intelligent cloud, a universal platform, a range of widely used products and services and a growing family of category-defining hardware, Microsoft's ecosystem is a comprehensive personal computing platform for industries and individuals.

A quantum platform will help Microsoft help people do even more.

Nadella's goal for "every individual and organization to get more out of every moment in their lives" will take on new meaning if Redmond successfully builds a quantum computing platform to power its ecosystem.

Imagine the power

Data encryption, database searching and simulations are some areas quantum computing is expected to impact.

Current computers would take years to crack the strongest encryption used today. Conversely, a quantum system could do the job with ease. Such technology would be courted by governments for both international and domestic surveillance. On the flip side, quantum-based security could bolster Microsoft's device management services and infrastructure exponentially.

Microsoft's quantum platform would empower diverse industries.

Furthermore, an intelligent quantum cloud could empower any industry to run an unprecedented number of complex simulation scenarios simultaneously. Predicting outcomes and potential paths of action would be possible with incredible accuracy. Long-term effects of medications could be predicted, the impact of urban projects could be calculated, military offensives could be anticipated, years of academic research could be reduced to days. The list goes on.

Moreover, a quantum system could make searching for information vastly more efficient. An intelligent system that knows a user, recalls past behavior, monitors current activity, and accesses relevant data from the general activity of others could potentially anticipate (via proactive background simulations) the reasons for a particular query rather than just recognizing that a query was made. This could yield results so tailored to a user's immediate need that it seems almost magical. Not unlike how a spouse who's frantically searching for something is handed exactly what they need by their husband/wife without ever divulging what they're looking for.

These are just some scenario's quantum computing may enable.

A Quantum Cortana

Cortana, the boundless, cross-platform AI, could become vastly more intelligent and proactive on a quantum platform. Her ability to synthesize data from Bing, Windows and other input sources and data repositories would be greatly increased. Moreover, her working in conjunction with a quantum-based Bot Framework would make computer intelligence more ambient, pervasive, proactive and personal.

Imagine a student that grows up with Cortana as a personal assistant who's now searching for colleges. Cortana could use years of data synthesized from behavior, preferences, grades and more; collaborate with bots from potential colleges and provide ideal matches in nanoseconds, from the simple query, "Cortana, what colleges should I consider?"

A boundless quantum-based Cortana could be game-changing.

Furthermore, a single AI that intimately knows each of us, our schedules, preferences, habits and connections with one another could coordinate our lives in profound (and scary) ways. If I suddenly fell ill and couldn't attend a scheduled meeting, Cortana could proactively alert the other attendees' that I cannot attend.

That sounds efficient. But what of the negative impact of a single intelligence that potentially possesses intimate and real-time knowledge about a billion of us?

Who knows?

Homdahl admits Microsoft's efforts aren't guaranteed to succeed. If, however, they do Microsoft is resolved to be the quantum computing platform to help individuals and organizations do more. Only time will tell where this will lead.

We do know, however, that the leap in computing will be like the difference between a child and an accomplished pianist playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

40 Comments
  • Thanks for reading folks!!! Quantum Computing can potentially propel us into a realm of computing that has only been possible in the imaginative world of science fiction. Not unlike flying vehicles that transport people around the globe, or printers that print 3D objects, or computers that fit in our pockets that have more processing than computers that filled rooms and other modern wonders were once only possible in the world of sci-fi. It will be interesting to watch where Microsoft's engineering of a quantum computer will lead. The potential is vast. The limit? The sky. Net benefits and the human potential to abuse technology are also things to consider. As the software and engineering teams are formed, should ethical teams be put in place to handle some of the deeper issues of privacy, how involved AI should be involved in our lives and more? Finally, what do you envision as some of the implications of quantum computing? LET'S TALK!!!
  • >what do you envision as some of the implications of quantum computing?
    Minecraft in 4k @ 60 FPS ;)
  • Printers that print 3D objects? Well the industrie US doing this for over a decade.
    But all in all you're absolutely right. But I think we'll have to wait at least twenty years.
  • Hi Apfel: Thanks for the input. I think you misunderstood the point of my highlighting 3D Printer's, Commercial Airplanes and Smartphones in my comments above. :-) I was making the point that each of those technological advancements were once (prior to their becoming a reality) were all the product of science fiction. As a matter of fact, commercial airplanes have been a reality far longer than the single decade you referenced for 3D printers. :-) Just as they were all once sci-fi fantasies, so too are many of the possible applications of quantum computing. I was including this reality to help encourage the discussion to imagine beyond what may be viable today and imagine what could happen if the technology reaches a certain point just as airplanes, 3D Printer's and smartphones(pocket PCs) are fantasies that have become a reality! :-) Thanks for the input!
  • tl; dr Guess we will have Fusion Energy before we will have quantum computers that makes sense. We still do not understand some fundamental facts about this universe.
    It will take a couple of scientific and technological breakthroughs before we can get going. The promises of quantum computing are fascinating and any self respecting huge (IT) corporation has to invest in it today to not miss the boat once there should loom a huge breakthrough on the horizon but we are still far a way from a real quantum computer. Far away. Despite all the news we read. .
  • Agree, yet if we follow the science news. it could be sooner than we expected. around 10-20 years (at least in my lifetime) from now there will be some sugnificant progress involving this area. Very interestingly differ from our current electronic technology and probably not avalable to all yet but math conceptual is almost ready.
  • I hope if I get sick I will not lose  what I worked all my life!
  • Wow 😲 !!!
  • Microsoft's future is bright, 10 years from now I expect them to be leading in various technological domains.
  • Just not phones :)
  • hahahaahha
  • Can't say that for sure because as much work is going into WM more and more OEMs like Alcatel will bring a product to market. Alcatel alone right now with their package of WP and VR is a compelling product package for the money more so than a single Android or Apple phone that cost as much or more so I just do not believe other OEMs are going to sit  back and watch Alcatel build the WM market by themselves with Redstone 2 about to add more and more to this platform adding cost effectiveness to the consumers.
  • Yikes.
  • Elysium Just that, without going into everything else regarding the "possibility" of such a "platform"/necessity. Our world is constantly changing, even dying (Earth), so there's a need for something more advanced and superior to everything we have today, IF we want to [somehow] expand, actually LIVE the future, in the future.
  • In the end, Skype was a Quantum Cortana. Or a Qortana.
  • I actually feel that Cortana will be the most human AI in the long run, I think MS philosophy for AI will eventually Put it against Google and varying way in terms of ethics. I think MS quantum team might reach practicality and market in substantial ways quicker than what they expect. Just A Gut Feeling Though!
  • I imagine that even the most complex of passwords could be hacked via brute force in no time using qbits. I would think Security would have to fundamentally change using biometrics or be constantly altering.
  • The conferences about security every year already have sections dedicated to quantum computing, just so they're ready when (not if) someone gets one working. If I remember correctly, they already have a general idea worked out on some form of encryption. But I can't remember it, been long time since I read about it. Fancy stuff though.
  • So Windows 10 128-bit edition is coming?
  • For what reason?
  • Brute force hacking techniques are very old and can't beat today's complex passwords.
  • The idea of this is sheer exhilaration mixed with a little bit of acute terror. I think the most obvious and immediate benefit to lay users would be AI. Unless of course, "Quomputing" would also provide the predicted quantum leap boost to gaming performance capabilities, then it's a toss-up! Nevertheless, I smell paradigm. Plain and simple. :-)
  • Yeah I hear you. If this is successful and quantum computers are one day part of our lives, though there would be great potential for good, the baser part of human kind has a nasty way of perverting what could actually help mankind...i.e. Nuclear power :-(
  • Just wow.. This is an excellent article.
  • @anurag Thanks man!
  • Seriously, if this is achieved, this could be the boost in technology that we need so that we don't get the same crap technology sold to us as advanced such as apple's business model.
  • Great article, Microsoft will be very important corporation leader on 4th Industrial Revolution aka Industry 4.0 where the cloud, Internet of Things and cyber physical systems will play together.  Great job Satya Nadella, for modernizing this company, I have strong beliefs that Microsoft will lead this change globally.
  • My biggest question is: Does it tap into the Mirror Dimension or the Dark Dimension?  Cause I don't want to have to negotiate with Dormammu just to change my schedule.  ;)  Awesome article on a very complex subject matter, thanks!
  • I got that reference!
  • Can you just tell me when I will have an OS girlfriend who is humanlike but understands me :') ...WHERE ARE YOU SAM 8'O
  • Great article. Thanks. Still digesting...
  • Really love reading your articles.
  • I love Cortana but 8 don't want her knowing what college my child should go to or when I'm sick.
  • Why not? It could offer to order chicken soup for you ;)
  • Or better, she could make it for you, by hand, and spoon feed you. "There, there primative human."
  • Fantastic article. Refreshing not seeing an article about windows phone and how it's doing in its 1℅ market share and near abandoned ecosystem. Windows would do right to partner with the like of IBM, Google, Apple for this quantum push, I believe in shared learning for a greater good. You shouldn't monopolize something this important to humanity. We are evolving as entities, collective consciousness, there is a feeling of what is next, we are reaching the beginning/end of a new era in human evolution. There will be most that are not aware, ready to let go of the past, that's ok. I still have some mannerism, dogma that I have attained from my early days of growing up. But it's a good feeling, maybe my grandkids children will experience quantum computing, traveling to the moon, Mars, the most bottom of the ocean. I just wish I could extend my life just a couple hundred years, young and in good health of course. I am a bit jealous of what the future holds for human kind. Cheers
  • I really like your idea about multiple (u.s. based) company's should be involved. The last time humanity tried something on this scale was the moon project. I believe this would not only have benefits in this endeavor but like the moon projects. Have repercussions that eco on for years. Kelly Johnsons ideas on cross communication from multiple departments by literally removing walls . helped create things like the SR-71 or RS-71 if you want to be persis .
    One other thing. I know N.A.S.A is an aerospace program. But I do believe there impute and there ability to alow transparency is not to be understated. Not to mention the masses experience with huge project that are super complex.
    well that's what I wanted to say what do you think
  • The world's leading Quantum Computing company is D-Wave based in Vancouver, BC. D-Wave is almost 100% American. The reason they set up their company in Canada is to get away from the US government's bone-headed export philosophy where they simply ban the export of some high-performance computing technologies. Pity. Last year Obama signed an Executive Order declaring HPC "in the national interest" which gives the government the right to control it. And here I thought the Chinese communists were backwards. Let's hope the first thing Donald Trump does is override Obama's Exec Orders and brings the USA back into the global community.
  • I've been beggining to wonder when/if it would become a race. I've been following quantum computing for a couple of years now. The physics behind it is actually more intriguing to me than what it actually does or can do.
  • I'd love to see this applied to Gaming.