Inside the Quantum Race: Microsoft

Who are the technology companies leading the way when it comes to enterprise quantum computing research? We start this series with the Redmond-based vendor Microsoft

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Microsoft

A dark mood permeated the agenda at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland – a gulf apart from the techno-optimism of the previous years – noting the sharp rise in nationalism, instability, and inequality.

But over at Microsoft's cafe, attendees from the Redmond, Washington firm were offering a vision of a brave new world, helped along by the advances that working quantum computing promises to introduce: an end to climate catastrophe, incredible health discoveries, even completing billions of years of research in a matter of months, weeks, or days.

Dr Julie Love cut her teeth with a PhD in quantum physics from Yale and is now senior director of quantum at Microsoft. Speaking in Davos last month, she said that the new mode of computing was proving to be a beacon to the CEOs, academics, economists, and journalists in attendance.

"The potential for exponential speed-up is really profound,” says Dr Love, speaking with Computerworld. “With this explosion of data and AI systems and the end of Moore's Law, we're not seeing the advancements in compute speed and capability [...] you have this need for compute."

Quantum computing promises to solve problems that are constrained by existing standards of compute power, such as mapping the known universe, mitigating the effects of climate change, or completely breaking existing cryptography.

While at first glance it might feel counterintuitive trying to square the company that introduced the world to Clippy with civilisation-transforming hardware, you have to admit, the problems quantum computing is pitched to solve are an appealing sell.

To be able to some day achieve this requires significant resources, something Microsoft has committed to – having created a worldwide network of quantum computing centres where physicists along with every type of engineer you can imagine busy themselves solving the hardware and software problems that they think will lead to what the company called quantum 'impact'.

"This is on par with other major hardware developments we've had as a company," says Love. "We don't release specific numbers, but it's significantly resourced. As I walk through the breakthroughs we're requiring, we're staffing a really broad global team against this – we have Microsoft quantum labs around the world, because we knew from the start we wouldn't find all this diverse talent here in Redmond.”

This staff includes mathematicians, theoretical physicists, chip designers, software developers, mechanical engineers and material scientists. Although all of the contributors to Microsoft's efforts in quantum are too numerous to mention, other key figures at the firm include Stanford alumni Todd Holmdahl, the former CVP of quantum who also spearheaded Microsoft's initial forays into videogame hardware with the Xbox and the Kinect; Michael Freedman, distinguished scientist and founding director of Microsoft Quantum Station Q in the mid-noughties; and Matthias Troyer, fellow at the American Physical Society and recent winner of the Hamburg Prize for Theoretical Physics. Krysta M. Svore is general manager for quantum systems, while Chetan Nayak is GM for quantum hardware.

Leo Kouwenhoven, meanwhile, is the TU Delft applied physics professor who unearthed a string of quantum discoveries such as evidence of the Majorana particle on nanowires, and is principal researcher at Microsoft.

What is Microsoft actually up to in the quantum computing space, how did it get to where it is today, and what's next for the firm?

Making a quantum impact

Quantum 'supremacy', quantum 'advantage', quantum 'impact' – a small sample of the phraseology some of the major vendors working in the field have chosen as their own.

As well as heft, these terms are intended to signify the moment when quantum computers, still in their infancy, overtake the abilities of classical computers to start solving the unsolvable – reducing problems that could take thousands of years with traditional methods to months, weeks, or days.

Microsoft's preferred term is 'quantum impact' – which, as well as suggesting sci-fi schlock (as do all quantum couplings), is supposed to really hammer home the weightiness of the change the quantum world is set to usher in.

At the Redmond corporation's annual Ignite conference in late 2019, chief executive Satya Nadella – who underscored the importance of quantum as a strategic priority for Microsoft in his book Hit Refresh – outlined the firm's plans to bring quantum capabilities to the cloud with Azure Quantum.

Azure Quantum would be an accumulation of much of the company's more-than-a-decade long research so far, bringing together the cloud computing interface of Azure and combining it with a developer-first approach to making sense of the new landscape with the Quantum Development Kit (Q#) framework.

Access via the cloud should eventually allow users to tap into vast amounts of computing power without the need for physical access, something that will be in short supply. Although its computational methods differ from Microsoft's, IBM toyed with this idea when it provided access to its prototype quantum processors via the cloud with its IBM Q Experience platform.

Microsoft has taken a collaborative approach to its hardware and software offerings, working with partners including startups 1QBit, QCI, and IonQ, a Maryland-based general purpose specialist in trapped ion quantum computing and quantum circuit creation. Aerospace, engineering, and defence giant Honeywell is also collaborating on hardware with the Redmond firm, and specialises in trapped ion hardware and other control systems for creating quantum computers.

Also announced last year was a cryogenic CMOS semiconductor design, which, according to the company, can control up to 50,000 qubits through three wires and a 1cm2 chip for operating at near absolute zero, the required temperature for quantum computing.

The face of these partnerships is the Microsoft Quantum Network, a broad coalition launched early 2019 to advance quantum computing – including Cambridge Quantum Computing, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Qulab, and QCI, among others. Customers include Natwest, Dow, Ford, and Case Western Reserve University (more on them later).

Quantum Network's list of academic partners includes TU Delft, UC Santa Barbara, Purdue University, Washington State, Eindhoven University of Technology, the University of Copenhagen, and the University of Sydney, among others.

Adjacent to Microsoft Quantum Network is the Quantum Labs initiative, which all share the firm's vision for advancing topological quantum computing, which we'll expand on later.

Additionally, Microsoft is aiming to advance an open source framework to point the wisdom of crowds at quantum software development. Why would research institutions pick Microsoft's over, say, a rival vendor's attempts to spearhead an open source quantum development language?

"I think people will definitely want something that's useful," Love responds, perhaps pointedly.

"People around the world also share this aspiration to deliver impact from this technology," she adds. "Open source software is one component of it, but also having choice in the execution environment.

"So, you want to write some code, you want it to be durable – hardware is evolving very quickly, so we've taken a very high-level approach so that you can write quantum algorithms and then you can run that across a range of execution environments. We think that will be useful."

Finding fermions

Microsoft's investment in quantum goes way back – long before some of the other major players in the landscape such as Google. Its first centre for investigating quantum computing was launched in 2004, before Windows Vista was released, with the Station Q lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Its founding director was mathematician Michael Freedman, who has been at the firm since 1997, and whose scientific achievements include those relating to topology in quantum mechanics.

One of the many riddles in quantum computing is the instability of the qubit itself; the basic two-state unit of quantum information.

They tend to disappear without much warning, and are prone to disruption by the tiniest changes in their environment. Quantum computing will only be possible when these easily disrupted 'physical qubits' are stable enough to form 'logical qubits' that are protected against this interference and can be used to hold quantum information.

Microsoft believes one solution to this precision problem could be found in topological systems. These are devices that, as Gizmodo lucidly explains, can be engineered to retain inherent qualities despite changes to them.

And the key to a topological qubit is in something called the Majorana fermion.

Shortly before his still-unexplained disappearance at sea, Italian theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana posited a particle that was also its own antiparticle. If two of the particles ever met, explains MIT Technology Review, they would "annihilate each other in a flash of energy".

Physicists have quixotically pursued proof of this 'Majorana fermion' until the beginning of the last decade, when a team in the Netherlands conducting research underwritten by Microsoft declared a breakthrough.

In 2012, Physics World reported that researchers led by Leo Kouwenhoven at Delft and Eindhoven had unearthed evidence for the existence of these Majorana fermions. By studying topological superconductors – materials that are "superconducting in the bulk but are normal metals on their surface" – they had found the elusive matter sitting at one end of a nanowire.

One side of the nanowire sits near the superconductor, and the other end is attached to a gold electrode. This is all cooled to tens of millikelvin – temperatures near to, or colder than outer space – and a magnetic field is then applied along the nanowire. The team claimed a lack of response to magnetic and electric fields on the device was only explainable by the existence of Majorana fermions contained at one side of the nanowire.

A more recent discovery led by TU Delft and Microsoft made progress with split, fractionalised particles in these topological devices. Gizmodo explains:

"The quantum information would be stored in this system not in any single particle, but in the collective behaviour of the entire wire. Manipulating the wire in the magnetic field could make it appear that half of an electron, or more accurately, a particle that’s halfway between an electron and not an electron, sits on either end.

"These so-called Majorana fermions, or Majorana zero-modes, are protected by the collective topological behaviour of the system – you can move one around the wire without affecting the other. These Majorana zero-modes also form the two qubit states. If you bring them together, they either turn into zero particles or one full particle."

Of this discovery, Leo Kouwenhoven told Computerworld: "The truth is we didn’t really believe at first that the small zero-bias peak that we measured had anything to do with Majoranas. It took us a month or so to convince ourselves that we could be on the right track. It took another three months that we felt certain enough to throw a party."

Dr Love adds that these qubits are built "just a hair above absolute zero".

"We're developing qubits based on nanowires that allow us to encode the information into the material itself," she says.

That requires different types of control systems, such as the cryogenic chip developed by Microsoft, Love adds, which can "control up to 10,000 qubits with only three wires".

"What's unique about this particle is that if you think about these nanowires, we can, with the right electric and magnetic fields, actually fractionalise the electron and have it be sitting in half on both ends of the nanowire."

Microsoft hopes to create sturdier qubits that are not so noisy. The noisy qubits, Love says, are made "all the time" in its labs, but to deliver that "impact", the firm really needs higher performing, robust qubits, and topological systems appear to be the answer.

Putting quantum into action

Until then it's unlikely that Redmond staffers will totally remould the world as we know it. However, there are other ways that Microsoft has been able to direct its knowledge, to work on optimisation problems today.

Love explains that the company's work in the field has provided Microsoft with a deep algorithmic understanding of quantum computing, and that while it is currently preparing algorithms that can be used by the working quantum computers of the future, 'quantum-inspired' algorithms can be performed on classical computers already. These are especially useful for hard optimisation problems where there are an enormous range of variables.

"It turns out we can have significant advancements just using this quantum way of problem solving," says Love. "That has led to breakthroughs."

One such organisation Microsoft worked with to test out these 'quantum-inspired' methods is Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. In 2018, Microsoft set about assisting the institution in cancer discovery through MRIs.

Researchers at the university had already been working on honing a technique called magnetic resonance fingerprinting, a powerful but expensive and slow update to the traditional MRI scan. Rather than drawing a fixed series of data points, the method uses a varying – but constant – sequence of pulses.

However, the method also presents an optimisation problem, and that lies in identifying the ideal sequence of pulses and readouts to build a more efficient and effective image.

Microsoft's "quantum way of understanding," says Love, has led to the teams collaborating on algorithms that help to perform scans three times faster with no loss of picture quality, as well as boosting precision by up to 30 percent. Ultimately the idea is that this leads to a clearer understanding of the scanned tissue, and thus earlier diagnoses.

This work, adds Love, is symbolic of the potential for casting doubt on scientific riddles thought to be unimaginably complex or just plain impossible.

"When I first met Mark Griswold, the professor we are working with, he had just had a grant proposal denied to optimise this pulse sequence because it was known to be unsolvable," she says.

"In the course of months of collaboration with our team, so many new ideas came out of that work where we said: what if it's not?"

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