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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella introduces the company’s new initiatives in quantum computing at the Microsoft Ignite conference in Orlando, Fla. (Microsoft Video)

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella today took the wraps off Azure Quantum, a full-stack, cloud-based approach to quantum computing that he said would play well with traditional computational architectures.

“With all the capacity we have around computing, we still have many unsolved problems, whether it’s around food safety, or climate change, or the energy transition,” Nadella said at the Microsoft Ignite conference in Orlando, Fla. “These are big challenges that need more computing. We need general-purpose quantum.”

While classical computers deal in binary bits of ones and zeroes, quantum computers can take advantage of spooky physics to process quantum bits — or qubits — that can represent multiple values simultaneously.

For years, Microsoft and its rivals have been laying the groundwork for general-purpose quantum computing hardware and software. Microsoft has previously announced some elements of its strategy, including its Q# programming language and Quantum Development Kit, but today Nadella put all the pieces together.

A private preview of Azure Quantum is due to be launched in the coming months, with the Microsoft Quantum Network serving as the primary point of contact for developers and startups. “We’ll have a variety of hardware solutions that are all going to be open in Azure,” Nadella said.

Microsoft’s hardware partners include IonQ and Honeywell, which are working on quantum computing systems based on trapped ions; as well as Quantum Circuits Inc., which uses Lego-like assemblies of superconducting circuits.

Nadella said Azure Quantum will offer “a complete toolkit” of open-source software including Microsoft’s Q# and QDK, as well as 1QBit’s software platform and services.

End-to-end quantum computing based on Microsoft’s topological qubit architecture may not yet be ready for prime time, but Nadella highlighted a “quantum on classical” approach, in which quantum tools are used alongside classical computation to optimize the algorithms for simulating complex phenomena.

“We’ve seen, in fact, many use cases already, across health care, across finance and the electrical grid as well,” Nadella said.

He threw a video spotlight on a medical diagnostic technique called magnetic resonance fingerprinting, which is being pioneered by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic.

The technique uses quantum-inspired algorithms to optimize MRI scans, based on the patient’s precise position inside the scanner. Once the scan is done, the 3-D visualization can be viewed using Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented-reality headset.

“Working with Azure has given us improvement in speed and about a 30% improvement in precision,” Mark Griswold, a professor of radiology at CWRU, said on the video. “The results we’re getting are allowing us to see diseases earlier than befor, and to quantify the treatments that we’re giving.”

Other early users include:

Microsoft isn’t alone in efforts to explore the frontiers of quantum computing. D-Wave Systems, which is headquartered in Burnaby, B.C., has been developing a cloud-based service that takes advantage of a special-purpose optimization technology known as quantum annealing.

Meanwhile, IBM, Google and other heavyweights of the computer industry are neck-and-neck with Microsoft in the race to create general-purpose quantum devices. Just a couple of weeks ago, Google researchers and their partners published a research paper claiming that they had achieved “quantum supremacy” over classical computation for a specific algorithm that generates random numbers.

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