Every month, every quarter, every year, new computers are released that are faster than their predecessors. Processors that operate faster, hard drives that spin faster (or don’t spin at all in the case of SSDs), faster memory, and so on. But the acceleration of computers in this way has boundaries. The physical limits of what can be achieved with existing technology has just about been reached. If computers are going to continue to get faster, something drastic needs to happen. Microsoft's solution to this is to invest in quantum computing.
A team of computer scientists and physicists funded by Microsoft are researching how quantum computing could be made a reality. If the worlds of computing and quantum physics collide successfully, unimaginably powerful computers could be created; computers that are capable of not only crunching numbers faster than ever before, but also capable of dealing with data in completely new ways.
Current computers have changed very little over the decades. Like much of quantum physics, many of the ideas surrounding quantum computing are somewhat theoretical. This is an evolving branch of science, and it's not yet fully understood how the properties of subatomic particle could, or indeed can, be harnessed. At the moment, the binary system that's in use is based on bits. These can be either on or off, zeroes or ones. Get into the realms of quantum computing and the qubits that are involved can be zeroes and ones at the same time. Factor in entanglement -- a characteristic which causes physically separate particles to act as though they were connected -- and the potential processing power is phenomenal.
The ability to be in multiple states simultaneously has huge implications. Microsoft is investing money and time exploring particles known as anyons -- although these have not yet been proven to exist -- hoping that these can be used to generate qubits. Other firms have successfully created qubits, but they have proved difficult to control and have been very short-lived. Research supported by Microsoft has already gone some way to proving that these particles, which could ultimately be the cornerstones of quantum computing, really do exist.
Writing in the New York Times, John Markoff explains Microsoft's tactics:
In the approach that Microsoft is pursuing, which is described as "topological quantum computing", precisely controlling the motion of pairs of subatomic particles as they wind around one another would manipulate entangled quantum bits. Although the process of braiding particles takes place at subatomic scales, it is evocative of the motions of a weaver overlapping threads to create a pattern. By weaving the particles around each other, topological quantum computers would generate imaginary threads whose knots and twists would create a powerful computing system. Most important, the mathematics of their motions would correct errors that have so far proved to be the most daunting challenge facing quantum computer designers.
Microsoft is understandably keen to be right at the cutting edge of any developments that break. Despite the current technological limitations, research is well under way that will help to produce early quantum prototypes.
There's a very exciting future ahead. At the moment it is something of a step into the unknown, but the rewards are sure to be great -- and Microsoft looks set to be at the forefront.