Microsoft quantum computing: Cautious to commercialise, bullish to build

Who will lead the quantum economy?

In the wake of bold announcements from Google and IBM on their plans to make quantum computing commercially available, Microsoft has said it is “still trying to figure out” a business model for the technology.

“I don’t know that we’re really sure yet. This is a bit like when the first transistor was created; no one really knew how it was going to develop further,” David Pritchard, chief of staff of the company’s AI and Research Division, told Computerworld.

“We’ve got some ideas… But the whole business area is still new and we’re still trying to figure that out along with the science and how we bring these pieces together,” he added.

Microsoft is engaged in a global race to build a functional quantum computer, and is pursuing a topological approach to forming quantum bits – qubits – using quasiparticles called non-abellian anyons.

Nobody has yet built a proven quantum computer, but that hasn't stopped Microsoft's competitors announcing plans to make the technology commercially available.

Researchers at Google’s Quantum AI Laboratory said in a March Nature editorial that the company would “commercialise quantum technologies within five years”.

In the same month, IBM announced its commercial 'Q' quantum computing program would deliver paid quantum computing services via the cloud to users before the end of the year.

Pritchard added that he could “see quantum computing in the cloud where people are using them that way”, but players in the field were “at the infancy of figuring out how it progresses forward”.

Bullish on ability

Although cautious on its approach to commercialisation, Microsoft is bullish on its effort to build a useable quantum computer. On Tuesday the company announced a multi-year, multi-million dollar partnership with the University of Sydney as part of an ongoing global ramp-up of research.

After many years advancing the theory behind the science, the work had now become an ‘engineering race’, said Doug Carmean, partner architect of Microsoft's Quantum Architectures and Computation group.

“My genetics are made out of building products. And Microsoft hired me to help this transition from the world of theoretical physics to something that can actually be a product,” said Carmean, who during a 25 year career at Intel was principal architect of the Pentium 4 processor and conceived of the Xeon Phi family of products.

“Hiring me, the team, as well as what we’re doing with scaling out here in Sydney, is really a clear signal that we think we’re pretty close to building a full quantum computing system,” he added at the partnership announcement event this week.

The sentiment was echoed by Professor David Reilly, who was appointed last year to lead the Australian branch of Microsoft's Station Q global network of labs.

“We’ve reached a point where we can move from mathematical modelling and theory to applied engineering for significant scale-up,” he said.

Quantum economy

The commercial opportunity for the first quantum computing provider is significant.

The nature of quantum systems means huge volumes of calculations can be performed in parallel and simultaneously. For certain problems quantum computers promise to completely out-perform the most powerful classical computers.

"Creating a useful, scalable quantum computer is one of the greatest scientific challenges facing mankind. It also presents one of our greatest opportunities. This dramatically expanded spectrum of what we can achieve through computing would set the stage for an entirely new era of human innovation that will usher in a societally transformative 'quantum economy'," Microsoft said in a statement.

And who will lead that new economy? Pritchard is confident: "You see Microsoft spending a significant investment on it. You see Google and IBM, you see governments like China investing. The EU has this one billion euro grand challenge. So somebody’s going to crack it. Somebody’s going to make it happen and I think it’s going to be us.”

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