Microsoft is looking to build quantum computers

An engineer involved the Kinect, Xbox and HoloLens projects will lead the team.

d wave 512qubit processor

A 512-qubit processor used in D-Wave's quantum computers.

Credit: D-Wave Systems Inc.

Quantum computing sounds like something out of Star Trek, even when explained at the simplest of levels, but it's a field the tech sector is anxious to crack because of the enormous leap in computation power it offers. Google and IBM have spent a lot of money on their projects, and now Microsoft is bringing its considerable research facilities to bear.

Quantum computing offers potential leaps forward in computing because unlike conventional transistors, operates on the binary level of 0 or 1, which translates to an on or off state for the transistors -- quantum computing uses quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist simultaneously in both 0 and 1 states. This means potentially representing enormous number of values simultaneously, which translates to much faster computation.

Qubits are very hard to work with because they are so easily destabilized. They exist in a very fragile, delicate state and any little bit of interference, such as a wave of light, vibration from heat, or even cosmic waves passing by, can destabilize them. That's why quantum computing has been so elusive for so long. The idea was first proposed in 1982 and is still vaporware. It was only recently that researchers were able to develop circuitry that detects these errors and corrects them.

Needless to say this is not for playing "Angry Birds." It's for A.I., drug research and advanced climate simulations, where processing bits by 0 and 1 is simply too slow, even with today's supercomputers and algorithms.

For years Microsoft has invested in other quantum computing projects, but now it's launching its own. The project will be led by Todd Holmdahl, an engineer previously involved in the Kinect, Xbox and HoloLens teams.

In the announcement for the project, Holmdahl, now a corporate vice president, tempered expectations because quantum computing is so challenging.

"None of these things are a given. 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,” he said.

To show how serious it is, Microsoft has hired two heavyweights in the field of quantum computing to be a part of Holmdahl's team. Leo 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. Charles 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.

Holmdahl's group will be a part of the Artificial Intelligence and Research Group that Microsoft recently created. It brought several A.I. research groups under one very large umbrella -- more than 5,000 people are in the group -- under the leadership of Harry Shum, who is considered one of the top A.I. and robotics engineers in the world.

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