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  1. #1
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    [EN] Microsoft Plans to Build a Quantum Computer

    Allison Linn
    November 20, 2016

    Microsoft is doubling down on its commitment to the tantalizing field of quantum computing, making a strong bet that it is possible to create a scalable quantum computer using what is called a topological qubit.

    Longtime Microsoft executive Todd Holmdahl – who has a history of successfully bringing seemingly magical research projects to life as products – will lead the scientific and engineering effort to create scalable quantum hardware and software.

    “I think we’re at an inflection point in which we are ready to go from research to engineering,” said Holmdahl, who is corporate vice president of Microsoft’s quantum program.

    Holmdahl, who previously played a key role in the development of the Xbox, Kinect and HoloLens, noted that success is never guaranteed. But, he said, he thinks the company’s long investment in quantum research has been fruitful enough that there’s a clear roadmap to a scalable quantum computer.

    “None of these things are a given,” Holmdahl said. “But you have to take some amount of risk in order to make a big impact in the world, and I think we’re at the point now that we have the opportunity to do that.”

    Microsoft has hired two leaders in the field of quantum computing, Leo Kouwenhoven and Charles Marcus. The company also will soon bring on two other leaders in the field, Matthias Troyer and David Reilly.

    Marcus is the Villum Kann Rasmussen Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and director of the Danish National Research Foundation-sponsored Center for Quantum Devices.

    Kouwenhoven is a distinguished professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and was founding director of QuTech, the Advanced Research Center on Quantum Technologies.

    Marcus and Kouwenhoven have been collaborating with Microsoft’s quantum team for years, with Microsoft funding an increasing share of the topological qubit research in their labs. After they join Microsoft, they will retain their academic titles and affiliation to their host universities, continue to run their university research groups and contribute to building dedicated Microsoft quantum labs at their respective universities.

    Both researchers say that joining Microsoft is the best path to ensuring that their breakthroughs can help create a scalable quantum computer.

    “It’s very exciting,” Kouwenhoven said. “I started working on this as a student way back, and at that time we had not a clue that this could ever be used for anything practical.”

    Kouwenhoven’s collaboration with Microsoft began casually enough, after a visit to the company’s Santa Barbara, California, lab and a “nice walk along the beach” with Michael Freedman, the lab’s director and a specialist in topological mathematics.

    After years of scientific collaboration, Kouwenhoven said, they’ve reached a point where they can benefit from an engineer’s perspective on how to bring the work to reality.

    “The engineering will also help move the science forward,” Kouwenhoven said.

    That’s important because Microsoft isn’t just interested in creating one qubit that can work in one perfect lab environment – what Marcus calls “a demonstration of quantum information.”

    Instead, the company hopes to create dependable tools that scientists without a quantum background can use to solve some of the world’s most difficult problems. By doing that, they believe they will help usher in a “quantum economy” that could revolutionize industries such as medicine and materials science.

    Marcus – whose collaboration with Microsoft began almost by happenstance when he happened to be seated next to Microsoft’s Freedman at a dinner some years ago – said he came to realize that a quantum economy would never be realized unless the scientists and the engineers began partnering more closely.

    “I knew that to get over the hump and 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,” Marcus said. “We need scientists, engineers of all sorts, technicians, programmers, all working on the same team.”

    That effort includes bringing other longtime collaborators on board.

    Troyer is currently a professor of computational physics at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, one of the leading universities in the world. Among his areas of expertise are simulations of quantum materials, the testing of quantum devices, optimization of quantum algorithms and the development of software for quantum computers.

    Reilly, an experimental physicist, is a professor and director of the Centre for Quantum Machines at the University of Sydney in Australia. He leads a team of physicists and engineers working on the challenges of scaling up quantum systems.

    Making the building blocks of a quantum computer

    Microsoft’s approach to building a quantum computer is based on a type of qubit – or unit of quantum information – called a topological qubit.

    Qubits are the key building block to a quantum computer. Using qubits, researchers believe that quantum computers could very quickly process multiple solutions to a problem at the same time, rather than sequentially.

    One of the biggest challenges to building a working quantum computer is how picky qubits can be. A quantum system can only remain in a quantum state when it’s not being disturbed, so quantum computers are built to be in incredibly cold, unique environments.

    The Microsoft team believes that topological qubits are better able to withstand challenges such as heat or electrical noise, allowing them to remain in a quantum state longer. That, in turn, makes them much more practical and effective.

    “A topological design is less impacted by changes in its environment,” Holmdahl said.

    At the same time as Microsoft is working to build a quantum computer, it’s also creating the software that could run on it. The goal is to have a system that can begin to efficiently solve complex problems from day one.

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

    To the team, that makes sense: The two systems can work together to solve certain problems, and the research from each can help the other side.

    “A quantum computer is much more than the qubits,” Reilly said. “It includes all of the classical hardware systems, interfaces and connections to the outside world.”

    With effective quantum hardware and software, quantum experts say they could create vast computing power that could address some of the world’s most pressing problems, from climate change and hunger to a multitude of medical challenges.

    That’s partly because the computers could emulate physical systems, speeding up things like drug development or our understanding of plant life. Researchers say the intelligent cloud could be exponentially more powerful, similar to how cell phones evolved into smart phones.

    “There is a real opportunity to apply these computers to things that I’ll call material sciences of physical systems,” Holmdahl said. “A lot of these problems are intractable on a classical computer, but on a quantum computer we believe that they are tractable in a reasonable period of time.”

    Kouwenhoven said that applies to the field of quantum physics itself, such as research into dark matter and other fundamental questions about our understanding of the universe itself.

    “I would find it interesting to go back to my science background and use the quantum computer to solve quantum problems,” he said.

    The transistor and the ash sucker

    Then there’s the vast unknown. Computer scientists will often point out that when scientists invented the very first transistor, they had no way of conceiving of an application like a smart phone.

    “My guess is that back in the 40s and 50s, when they were thinking about the first transistor, they didn’t necessarily know how this thing was going to be used. And I think we’re a little bit like that,” Holmdahl said.

    One of those inventors was Walter Brattain. He grew up in the same small town of Tonasket, Washington, as Holmdahl. Being a technology history buff, Holmdahl has long been fascinated by Brattain’s life.

    With quantum computing, Holmdahl said he sees an opportunity to be among the people who are following in Brattain’s footsteps.

    “The opportunity to be at the beginning of the next transistor is not lost on me,” Holmdahl said.

    When he took this role, Holmdahl also was thinking about another man who’s had a great influence on his life: His 20-year-old son, who told Holmdahl that if you think you’re one of the smartest guys at the table, you need to find a new table.

    “This is definitely a new table for me,” said Holmdahl, a Stanford-educated engineer who now spends his free time reading about things like quantum physics and entanglement.

    When Marcus thinks about what a quantum computer could do, he often thinks about an old car his family once had. It was a top-of-the-line car of its day, with all the latest technologies — including a dashboard gadget designed to suck ash directly from a cigarette.

    At the time, Marcus has often thought, someone must have believed that was as good as it was ever going to get in car technology.

    “Nobody, when they were designing ash suckers, was thinking about self-driving cars,” he said.

    The same thing could easily apply to computational power.

    “People who think of computation as being completed are in the ash sucker phase,” he said.

    http://blogs.microsoft.com/next/2016...computing-bet/

  2. #2
    WHT-BR Top Member
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    Microsoft Spends Big to Build a Computer Out of Science Fiction

    JOHN MARKOFF
    NOV. 20, 2016

    Microsoft is putting its considerable financial and engineering muscle into the experimental field of quantum computing as it works to build a machine that could tackle problems beyond the reach of today’s digital computers.

    There is a growing optimism in the tech world that quantum computers, superpowerful devices that were once the stuff of science fiction, are possible — and may even be practical. If these machines work, they will have an impact on work in areas such as drug design and artificial intelligence, as well as offer a better understanding of the foundations of modern physics.

    Microsoft’s decision to move from pure research to an expensive effort to build a working prototype underscores a global competition among technology companies, including Google and IBM, which are also making significant investments in search of breakthroughs.

    In the exotic world of quantum physics, Microsoft has set itself apart from its competitors by choosing a different path. The company’s approach is based on “braiding” particles known as anyons — which physicists describe as existing in just two dimensions — to form the building blocks of a supercomputer that would exploit the unusual physical properties of subatomic particles.

    Leading researchers acknowledge that barriers still remain to building useful quantum machines, both at the level of basic physics and in developing new kinds of software to exploit certain qualities of devices known as qubits that hold out the possibility of computing in ways not possible for today’s digital systems.

    Unlike conventional transistors, which can be only on or off at any one time, representing a digital 1 or 0, qubits can exist in superposition, or simultaneously in both states. If qubits are placed in an “entangled” state — physically separated but acting as though they are deeply intertwined — with many other qubits, they can represent a vast number of values simultaneously. A quantum computer would most likely consist of hundred or thousands of qubits.

    Microsoft began funding research in the field in 2005 when it quietly set up a laboratory known as Station Q under the leadership of the mathematician Michael Freedman.

    Microsoft now believes that it is close enough to designing the basic qubit building block that the company is ready to begin engineering a complete computer, said Todd Holmdahl, a veteran engineering manager who will direct the Microsoft effort. Over the years, he has led various Microsoft projects, including its Xbox video game machine and the yet-to-be-released HoloLens augmented reality system.

    “Once we get the first qubit figured out, we have a road map that allows us to go to thousands of qubits in a rather straightforward way,” Mr. Holmdahl said.

    There is still a debate among physicists and computer scientists over whether quantum computers that perform useful calculations will ever be created.

    A variety of alternative research programs are trying to create qubits using different materials and designs. The Microsoft approach, known as topological quantum computing, is based on a field that took on new energy when this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists who had done fundamental work in forms of matter that may exist in just two dimensions.

    Mr. Holmdahl’s project will also include the physicists Leo Kouwenhoven of Delft University, Charles M. Marcus of the University of Copenhagen, David Reilly of the University of Sydney and Matthias Troyer of E.T.H. Zurich.

    They will all become Microsoft employees as part of the Artificial Intelligence and Research Group that Microsoft recently created under the leadership of one of its top technical employees, Harry Shum.

    Microsoft’s newly hired physicists say the decision to try to build a topological quantum computer comes after scientific advances made in the last two years that give the scientists growing confidence that the company will be able to create more stable qubits.

    “The magic recipe involves a combination of semiconductors and superconductors,” Dr. Marcus said. The researchers recently made a “remarkable breakthrough” in their ability to control the materials used to form qubits, he said. Most of the competing approaches involve cooling quantum computers to near absolute zero temperatures.

    So far, there are relatively few proven algorithms that could be used to solve problems more quickly than today’s digital computers. One early effort, known as Shor’s algorithm, would be used to factor numbers, giving hope that quantum computers might be used in the future for breaking codes.

    That would potentially have world-shaking consequences because modern electronic commerce is built on cryptographic systems that are largely unbreakable using conventional digital computers. Other proposed approaches might allow faster searching of databases or perform machine learning algorithms, which are being used to make advances in computer vision and speech recognition.

    More immediately, however, these tools might advance the basic understanding of physics, a possibility the physicist Richard P. Feynman mentioned when he speculated about the idea of a quantum computer in 1982.

    For his part, Dr. Kouwenhoven said, “My dream application for a quantum computer would be a machine that could solve problems in quantum physics.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/te...-computer.html

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