A few weeks ago, Microsoft revealed that its cloud computing program will offer access to quantum computers. Quantum mechanics isn’t just the stuff of science fiction movies — it’s a frontier for computing. Microsoft is one of several tech giants investing money in this massive computational power, and the company is now preparing its Azure cloud service to offer select clients access to three quantum computers (from Honeywell and two startups, IonQ and QCI).
These quantum computers are still too young to do any useful work for the clients, but as developers and companies play with quantum algorithms and hardware now, the industry can learn what the technology will be useful for in the future.
The new service, called Microsoft Quantum, integrates quantum programming tools the company released previously with its cloud services. Clients can use either simulated quantum computers or the real hardware from Honeywell, IonQ, or QCI. Microsoft announced several weeks ago that the official launch would take place in the coming months.
Several other computing companies, namely Google and IBM, offer quantum services, but Microsoft’s differs in that it offers access to several different quantum computing technologies, perhaps a preview of what a larger quantum computing market might look like someday.
Since quantum computers are so difficult to build and operate, most of the current offerings utilize them via cloud services. The different computing systems offered with the Microsoft services are built in fairly different ways. Honeywell and IonQ encode data using individual ions trapped in electromagnetic fields, and QCI uses superconducting metal circuits.
Microsoft’s model of partnering with quantum computing companies also serves the quantum computing companies well. Many of the companies making progress on quantum hardware do not have cloud offerings of their own and may have difficulty attracting customers at this stage without cloud services. “This allows us to focus on what we are best at, making best-in-class quantum computers,” said Peter Chapman, CEO of Microsoft partner IonQ.
Quantum computers operate on qubits, which encode 1s and 0s into quantum mechanical effects. The effects are incredibly powerful, but also very easily overwhelmed — by heat, electromagnetic noise, and other environmental factors. The largest chips made by Google, IBM, and Intel have around 50 qubits, but a device would need millions of much more powerful qubits to be useful.
Microsoft is investing in topological qubits, which could be much more stable than traditional qubits. The topological qubits are still hypothetic at this point, but Microsoft asserts that its engineers are hard at work getting the materials it needs to make waves in quantum computing.
While still at work on the qubits, the company has revealed a new computer chip that could make strides in the quantum direction. It’s conventional, but the chip is designed to operate at temperatures colder than deep space. Microsoft’s future qubits will require cooling near to absolute zero in a refrigerator in order to operate.
While large-scale quantum computing is still the stuff of futuristic science fiction, Microsoft is taking real steps to reach that level of computing power.