Microsoft's next big bet? Clue: it's just hired four top quantum computing scientists

Microsoft says it's doubling down on quantum computing after nabbing four top scientists who will work with a Microsoft hardware veteran to turn research into reality.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Microsoft's quantum-computing project is led by Todd Holmdahl, a hardware veteran behind Microsoft's Xbox, Kinect, and soon-to-be-released HoloLens AR headset.

Image: Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures/Microsoft

Microsoft has hired a handful of top scientists to accelerate its program to develop quantum computing, as it steps up competition in the field with IBM and Google.

Microsoft has hired four top physicists to join a quantum-computing project being led by Todd Holmdahl, a Microsoft hardware veteran who's helped develop Microsoft's Xbox and Kinect gaming devices, and the soon-to-be-released augmented reality headset, HoloLens.

Holmdahl will be joined by quantum-computing leaders Leo Kouwenhoven from Delft University and Charles Marcus from the University of Copenhagen, as well as David Reilly, an experimental physicist from Sydney University, and Mattias Troyer, a professor of computational physics at ETH Zurich.

Microsoft is betting on an approach to quantum computing known as topological design, centered on the topological qubit.

Qubits correspond to the 1s and 0s in conventional computing, but they can achieve 'superposition' or be in both states simultaneously, opening the possibility of running many more calculations and ultimately faster processing.

The New York Times notes that Microsoft is focusing on 'braiding' particles as the foundation of a quantum computer.

Microsoft's researchers believe that topological qubits offer better resistance to electrical noise and heat, and are therefore less prone to self-destructing.

"We're at an inflection point in which we are ready to go from research to engineering," Holmdahl said.

Until now, much of Microsoft's work on quantum computing has been run through its Station Q laboratory, which it launched in 2005. One year earlier, Station Q director Michael Freedman proposed that Microsoft should use topological mathematics as a stable way for moving qubits.

Signaling Microsoft's intent to shift gears from theory to practice, the researchers will become Microsoft employees under the recently-launched Artificial Intelligence and Research Group.

The group is responsible for corralling Microsoft's research in AI and turning these breakthroughs into products, either embedded in existing platforms, such as Office 365, or integrated into Azure cloud offerings.

Microsoft thinks quantum computing will ultimately give it a more powerful cloud that could speed some of the challenges it's using AI to crack, ranging from medicine to environmental issues.

"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."

Holmdahl toldthe New York Times that once Microsoft has figured out how to build the first qubit, it has a roadmap that will allow it to scale up to thousands of qubits.

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