Just a few years ago, quantum computers seemed like a distant, almost sci-fi concept. But now, they seem increasingly tangible, and tech giants seem to be betting on this as well. In a recent study, Microsoft researchers announced a breakthrough that puts them one step closer to working, in commercial quantum computing.
A quantum computer is a computer that doesn’t just follow the straight path from A to B, but rather it traverses every possible route all at once. Our current computers (be they smartphones, laptops, or massive supercomputers) run on something called binary code. This is essentially a language of ones and zeros, known as bits. Each bit can exist as a one or a zero. It’s a bit like a light switch—it’s either on or off, there’s no in-between.
Quantum computers, however, do not play by these rules. Instead of bits, they use quantum bits, or qubits. Unlike a regular bit, a qubit can exist in multiple states at once thanks to a property called quantum superposition. In superposition, a qubit can be both a one and a zero at the same time. If a bit is like a light switch, a qubit is more like a dimmer switch, able to represent various levels of light and dark at once.
This is essentially a new and very different way of doing computation. But in order to get something like this to work, you need a very different type of hardware than what we have accessible — and this has proven to be very challenging.
Now, Microsoft claims that their new device achieves logical qubits with hardware stability. This would represent not only a big step toward quantum computing but also toward scaling systems in quantum supercomputers.
Fermions to computers
The main problem with quantum computing hardware is that systems usually have high error rates. The technological innovation announced by Microsoft revolves around something called ‘Majorana zero modes.’
A Majorana particle is essentially a fermion, a specific type of particle. But the Majorana fermion has a very special property: it is its own antiparticle. Antiparticles are essentially particles of the same mass and spin, but with opposite electrical charge. Antiparticles (like the electron and the positron, for instance), can annihilate each other.
Physicists are interested in Majorana particles for several reasons, but one of the most interesting properties is their potential use in quantum computing. Essentially, a pair of Majorana fermions could represent a qubit. Because the information stored in this type of qubit would be spread over multiple particles, it makes it harder to disrupt and less prone to error.
Microsoft’s new achievement does just that — marking what the authors see not just as a step towards a more stable quantum computer, but also a quantum supercomputer.
A quantum computer isn’t a faster version of a normal computer. It’s not that you can run better games or software on it, it’s more that you can do specific types of calculations much faster. This would be particularly useful in complex problem-solving, like drug discovery, weather forecasting, financial modeling, and even cracking encryption codes.
‘Supercomputer’ is a rather vague term, but in order for a computer to get the ‘super’ tag, it has to have much higher performance than standard computers and, in general, be used for some type of research or intensive calculation process. So what would a quantum supercomputer look like?
Microsoft wants to introduce a new measure to gauge the performance of quantum computers: reliable quantum operations per second (rQOPS). In order for a quantum computer to become a supercomputer, it would need to do around 1 million rQOPS at a minimum — but ideally, more towards 1 billion.
Nevertheless, despite the massive challenges ahead, Microsoft believes it will take less than 10 years to build a quantum supercomputer. Krysta Svore, Microsoft’s VP of advanced quantum development, said the company feels very confident in its quantum ability.
“We think about our roadmap and the time to the quantum supercomputer in terms of years rather than decades,” Svore said.
For now, however, achieving just a functional system based on this technology is proving to be challenging. Still, Microsoft isn’t the only company reporting breakthroughs in quantum computation. Just recently, IBM, Google, and other companies have announced their own breakthrough.
It looks like the quantum arms race is heating up.
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