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Todd Holmdahl
Microsoft executive Todd Holmdahl is leading the effort to create scalable quantum hardware and software. (Red Box Pictures via Microsoft / Scott Eklund)

Microsoft says it’s moving ahead from just talking about quantum computing to building an actual quantum computer, based on the physics that won a Nobel Prize this year.

The project will be headed by longtime Microsoft executive Todd Holmdahl, who previously played key roles in developing the Xbox gaming console, the Kinect motion sensor and the HoloLens augmented-reality system. Now he’s corporate vice president of Microsoft’s quantum program.

“I think we’re at an inflection point in which we are ready to go from research to engineering,” Holmdahl said in Sunday’s Microsoft blog posting about the project.

Microsoft isn’t alone in the field: For several years, Google has been working with NASA and a Vancouver-area company called D-Wave to evaluate quantum computer designs.

But neither is Microsoft a newcomer in the field: The Redmond-based software giant has had researchers exploring the quantum frontier for more than 15 years.

Quantum computing has the potential to solve big-data problems faster than classical computing, affecting areas ranging from cryptography and super-secure communications to climate modeling and the search for dark matter.

The key to the technology is the concept of qubits. In classical computing, each digital bit is either on or off, zero or 1. In contrast, qubits (that is, quantum bits) can represent zeros and 1’s simultaneously as they’re manipulated. Thus, multiple states can be processed in parallel.

The trick is in figuring out how to create qubits, keep them stable and connected during computation, and then read out the results. Typically, the process involves supercooled ions and atoms. Microsoft is looking in a somewhat different direction that focuses on two-dimensional quasiparticles known as anyons.

Theorists say that anyons could form the basis of a topological quantum computer, which takes advantage of braids in spacetime to conduct computation. “A topological design is less impacted by changes in its environment,” Holmdahl said.

The concept may sound bizarre, but this year’s Nobel Prize in physics went to researchers who have been studying the weird topological properties of exotic materials for decades. One of the laureates is David Thouless, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington.

For Microsoft’s quantum computing campaign, Holmdahl has recruited four pioneers in the field:

The team will be working on the hardware for quantum computers as well as the software to run on them, under the aegis of the recently formed Microsoft AI and Research Group. “Similar to classical high-performance computing, we need not just hardware but also optimized software,” Troyer said.

Microsoft hasn’t publicly laid out a development timeline, but Holmdahl said Microsoft’s research has finally reached the point where there’s a clear roadmap leading to quantum leaps.

“None of these things are a given,” he 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.”

Tip o’ the hat to Microsoft’s Allison Linn and The New York Times’ John Markoff.

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