Dear Commons Community.
Last Thursday I gave a talk entitled, Higher Education’s Digital Future, at the Online Learning Consortium’s Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida. In discussing the future of universities in the 2030s and beyond regarding technology development, I made a point that quantum computing if ever developed commercially and not just as experimental prototypical machines, would have enormous impact on all our societal activities much like the Internet of the 1990s. Microsoft announced yesterday that it is preparing to make a substantial investment of time and money in quantum computing technology. As reported in the New York Times:
“Microsoft is putting its considerable financial and engineering muscle into the experimental field of quantum computing as it works to build a machine that could tackle problems beyond the reach of today’s digital computers.
There is a growing optimism in the tech world that quantum computers, superpowerful devices that were once the stuff of science fiction, are possible — and may even be practical. If these machines work, they will have an impact on work in areas such as drug design and artificial intelligence, as well as offer a better understanding of the foundations of modern physics.
Microsoft’s decision to move from pure research to an expensive effort to build a working prototype underscores a global competition among technology companies, including Google and IBM, which are also making significant investments in search of breakthroughs.
In the exotic world of quantum physics, Microsoft has set itself apart from its competitors by choosing a different path. The company’s approach is based on “braiding” particles known as anyons — which physicists describe as existing in just two dimensions — to form the building blocks of a supercomputer that would exploit the unusual physical properties of subatomic particles.
Leading researchers acknowledge that barriers still remain to building useful quantum machines, both at the level of basic physics and in developing new kinds of software to exploit certain qualities of devices known as qubits that hold out the possibility of computing in ways not possible for today’s digital systems.
Unlike conventional transistors, which can be only on or off at any one time, representing a digital 1 or 0, qubits can exist in superposition, or simultaneously in both states. If qubits are placed in an “entangled” state — physically separated but acting as though they are deeply intertwined — with many other qubits, they can represent a vast number of values simultaneously. A quantum computer would most likely consist of hundred or thousands of qubits.
Microsoft began funding research in the field in 2005 when it quietly set up a laboratory known as Station Q under the leadership of the mathematician Michael Freedman.
Microsoft now believes that it is close enough to designing the basic qubit building block that the company is ready to begin engineering a complete computer, said Todd Holmdahl, a veteran engineering manager who will direct the Microsoft effort. Over the years, he has led various Microsoft projects, including its Xbox video game machine and the yet-to-be-released HoloLens augmented reality system.”
This is quite an interesting decision on the part of Microsoft. The company has been studying quantum computing for more than fifteen years to determine its feasibility and have concluded that it has a viable future. I could not find any mention in the news release of a time estimate for Microsoft to build a quantum machine. It is my guess that it will take at least ten years.