Inside Microsoft's 'soup to nuts' quantum computing ramp-up

Company has reached 'inflection point' with topological qubit research explains Station Q director Professor David Reilly

Professor David Reilly

Professor David Reilly

Mathemechanics

A lifelong academic, Reilly worked as a consultant to Microsoft for a couple of years before joining them full-time in October. Accepting the offer – a job Reilly calls “a perfect mixture of motor mechanic and mathematician in one” – was easy.

“You're dealing with a big company with a lot of smart people, a lot of resources, and a lot of experience in bringing technology from a theoretical idea to a reality,” he said.

“We are now thinking about quantum computing not as an esoteric research topic that's a curiosity but we're thinking about it from the point of view of actually building, constructing a machine.”

That machine can’t run on qubits alone, however. Reilly and his team are working on the interconnects that will pair qubits to classical systems. It’s no easy task, and requires a back to basics approach to classical computing. The solution will also need to work in the near absolute zero environments quantum systems operate in.

“It's back to 1936, before ENIAC and before the large-scale vacuum processors before transistors, microprocessors... We have to go back to some basic understanding of what computing is,” Reilly says.

Soup to nuts certain

Station Q in Sydney recently announced it was going to double its headcount by taking on 20 or more engineers. The 'doubling down' on quantum, as the company puts it, is taking place across the business.

Long-serving Microsoft executive Todd Holmdahl – who was involved in the development of Kinect, HoloLens, and Xbox – has been put in charge of the scientific and engineering push.

“A complete spectrum” of expertise has been hired worldwide, Reilly says, “from soup to nuts” (a phrase he picked up from his new American colleagues).

“The reality is…you are not going to build a quantum computer in your backyard and you're not going to build a quantum computer in a university lab with your graduate students and the kid that took a third-year project with you.

“It's something that requires a very large number of people, deep connections and networks throughout the world in the technology space, existing frameworks and contracts for getting things built.”

In other words: Microsoft has what it takes to build a quantum computer. But when?

Not soon. The challenge is harder than sending humans to the nearest star system, Reilly says. It is “the hardest thing we know of”. But it’s not impossible, and within our lifetimes.

“I don't want to retire with it still living in a world of academia and ideas, even if they're very interesting ideas…for me the dream is that we see this stuff actually come to life,” he says.

“We have turned a corner in our understanding, in our thinking and in our ambition to construct the technology and we think that now is the time to move on it.”

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