In recent years, tech giant Microsoft has made quantum computing or the development of a computer environment with gigantic computing power one of the policy spearheads. The opening of the joint research laboratory with TU Delft at the beginning of this year is part of this. Techzine spoke to National Technology Officer (NTO) Hans Bos of Microsoft Netherlands about why the company is involved in this and what it should ultimately yield for both the company and society.
Since last February, with the opening of the Microsoft Quantum Lab on the TU Delft site, our country has become an even more important player in the field of research into computing power based on quantum mechanics or quantum computing. In short, this form of computing is different because of the bits, which can be a ‘1’ or a ‘0’ at the same time, so to speak. These are the ‘quantum bits’ or ‘qubits’.
The fact that the qubit can be 1 and 0 at the same time in these two states is due to a so-called quantum mechanical effect, also known as ‘superposition’. Only after reading the qubits get a status, a ‘1’ or a ‘0’. This status is assigned on the basis of what should be the most likely optimal status in response to a ‘question’. By doing this with as many qubits as possible, almost unlimited computing power is created. This quantum computing power is then connected to a classic digital computer environment for the instruction of reading and reading the qubits.
Qubits based on ‘majorana’ particles and Lego stones
In the now-opened lab, the tech giant, TU Delft, Delft quantum technology company QuTech and TNO are investigating the development and construction of the qubits using a special method. They want to realize these qubits on the basis of a ‘topological’ structure based on a revolutionary technology with so-called ‘majorana’ particles.
These topological qubits also form a kind of ‘Lego stones’. These cubes can then be used to build specialist chips. At a later stage, the chips can carry out processes within a computer environment, the quantum computer, with extremely high speeds and thus computing power. The topological qubits form the basis for the final quantum computer.
Other qubit variants
Other projects to generate qubits are also being carried out at Delft University of Technology: using electrical circuits made of superconducting material, diamond crystals in which electrons are captured and quantum dots in which free electrons are ‘captured’ in classic silicon chips.
However, these methods do not have the proper robustness needed for quantum computers. They have more disturbances than the qubits based on the majorana particles. The probability of interference is very important in quantum computing since a limited amount of noise can already destroy the state in which particles are in superposition.
If enough computing power has to be developed, this superposition must hold out longer than the calculations take. Correction methods can be applied, but they still cause a lot of problems with computing power. In the areas of production and scalability, for example.
Possibilities of quantum computing
Quantum computing will enable complex computing processes to be carried out at high speed compared to the supercomputing environments that we currently have. Researchers at Delft University of Technology predict that it will soon be possible to make complex calculations for cleaner energy alternatives, such as developing the perfect battery capacity, within a very short space of time.
Another example of what quantum computing makes possible is found in the health sector. The super-fast computing power will soon make it easier to develop customized medicines for patients. This will result in highly personalized treatment methods up to the DNA level.
Finally, the internet can also benefit from quantum mechanics. Another quantum effect makes communication possible that cannot be eavesdropped on. In addition, so-called Quantum Key Distribution makes advanced communication security possible.
Microsoft and TU Delft
Microsoft has been showing a great deal of interest in the developments surrounding quantum computing for some time now and has therefore entered into a serious partnership with TU Delft, says Bos. The collaboration with this technical university is mainly prompted by the fact that the tech giants consider the topological approach to be the best, compared to all other methods.
According to Microsoft, the topological approach is the most stable form for qubits and thus for the ultimate development of the quantum computer. Moreover, the technology is in line with the tech giant’s long-term vision in the field of quantum computing.
Long-term vision for solving (business) problems
This long-term vision, once developed by Craig Mundie and partly based on Michael Freedman’s ideas and publications on topological quantum computing, is based on more stable qubits for realistically solvable major social and business problems.
In the search for the most stable form of qubits, the tech giant ended up in nanotechnology research in the Netherlands. This research, in which Microsoft realized that it was in line with the search for topological quantum computing, came from physicist Leo Kouwenhoven, who now runs the laboratory. The rest, as the English say, is actually history, according to Bos.
So Microsoft is now fully committed to this latest development. Not only with the laboratory at TU Delft, but also in specific research centers in Denmark, Australia and the United States. The latter research laboratory, Station Q, is more or less leading because it monitors the entire theoretical development around quantum computing. However, the Microsoft Lab in Delft is the most complete research lab available to the technology giant, says Bos.
Quantum computing as-a-service
The tech giant is therefore very motivated to contribute to the development of quantum computing in the world, but, of course, there must also be something in return. So Bos asks what the tech giant, besides wanting to contribute to solving major problems in the world, also wants to achieve in business with quantum computing. For example, by providing quantum computing as a service via the company’s own public cloud platform Azure.
In its answer, the NTO of Microsoft Netherlands does indeed indicate that the tech giant is already working on a number of applications so that its customers can already become acquainted with quantum computing. The most important thing is that everyone actually gets optimal access to this super-fast computing capacity.
A combination of ‘traditional’ computing power and that of quantum computing is the most obvious solution, Bos continues. The fact that this capacity is then offered via an as-a-service model via Azure is, of course, in line with expectations.
Special Quantum Development Toolkit
At the moment, Microsoft is already taking the first steps for this as-a-service model. A free Quantum Development Kit can be downloaded from the internet that allows users to perform calculations with simulated qubits via Visual Studio and thus develop new algorithms. Depending on the computing capacity of the device on which end users use this tool, they will have access to 20 to 30 simulated qubits on a laptop or up to 40 simulated qubits from Azure for the most complex algorithms.
According to the NTO of Microsoft Netherlands, the toolkit is already in great demand from the financial, health, chemical and agricultural sectors. The oil and gas sector is also looking with great interest at the possibility of using simulated quantum computing services.
Microsoft also notes that this quantum development toolkit for algorithms also encourages the traditional creation of new algorithms. While using the tool, companies are given new perspectives on how they can better develop algorithms using the existing or ‘traditional’ methods and what they can use them for. They are supposedly ‘quantum-inspired’, according to Bos versus Techzine.
Microsoft is also helping companies in the chemical industry on their way with special downloading open ‘libraries’ for the quantum toolkit. Recently with an integration to the open-source web application ‘Jupyter notebooks’. With this, the tech giant is actually giving these companies a helping hand in thinking about useful and usable quantum algorithms for this specific industry sector.
National Agenda for quantum computing
Microsoft, therefore, likes to take the lead in the field of development and in devising actual applications for quantum computing. But the tech giant also believes that they should not do this alone, certainly not in the Netherlands. That is why the company is actively working to make the Netherlands the real quantum hub or, in the words of CEO Ernst-Jan Stigter of Microsoft Netherlands, the ‘Capital of Quantum’.
To this end, the tech giant would like to bring together all the important parties in our country that can make the development and eventual use of quantum computing a great success for the Netherlands.
This includes cooperation between the various academic institutions, such as TU Delft, TU/e in Eindhoven, UVA, VU and the SARA calculation institute in Amsterdam and Leiden University. All these institutions not only conduct research into hardware but also into special materials, software applications and specific solutions for, among other things, a ‘new internet’ and security applications.
Other important institutes of great importance in this Dutch quantum research include, among other companies, TNO for practical research or Startup Netherlands to better facilitate and stimulate startups in the field of quantum computing. Cooperation between all these players should, therefore, lead to a kind of ‘National Agenda’ for quantum computing.
Full attention from the tech giant
Quantum computing gets a lot of attention in the Netherlands. Microsoft is actively helping with this by developing the first important building blocks with the recently opened laboratory at TU Delft, within a complete national partnership. After all, without stable qubits, there would be no real quantum computer.
The tech giant also takes the first steps with simulated quantum computing models, whether or not via Azure, in order to get the business community and relevant sectors on their way.
So, Microsoft really plays a pioneering role. We are curious to see what steps all these collaborations, led by the tech giant, will take in this complex high-tech development process. But above all, what all this has produced in practice and how it is used.