Forty-two years ago this summer a two-person company called Micro-Soft shipped its first product. It was a version of the programming language BASIC for the Altair 8800, one of the first successful personal computers. The company is now much larger, and un-hyphenated. And it’s reprising its original strategy in hopes of gaining an edge on another technological revolution—powerful computers that work on data using the quirks of quantum mechanics.
Practical quantum computers don’t yet exist, and Microsoft is behind rival tech giants Google and IBM in the race to develop quantum hardware. But at a conference in Orlando Monday for its corporate customers, the company announced the release of a new programming language for quantum computers. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said the technology would “help us tackle some of the biggest challenges we face.” He suggested quantum computers would allow breakthroughs in energy and medicine.
Quantum computers aim to unlock immense calculating power by exploiting the way quantum effects reorder traditional rules. Conventional computers manage data as bits that can be either 1 or 0. In a quantum computer, bits can be effectively be 1 and 0 at the same time, allowing shortcuts through tough calculations. Theory suggests some problems that would take millions of years on a conventional supercomputer might take minutes on a modest quantum computer.
Nadella positioned quantum computing Monday as one of three nascent technologies crucial to Microsoft’s future. The others are artificial intelligence, where Microsoft like rivals has begun investing heavily, and augmented reality, where Microsoft is developing the HoloLens headset.
Since Nadella took the helm in 2014, he has deepened Microsoft’s investments in cloud computing, where its business is second only to Amazon’s and growing healthily. He envisions one day adding quantum computers alongside Microsoft’s conventional cloud servers, renting them to companies looking for more powerful chemistry simulations and machine-learning software—areas where researchers expect quantum technology to be tractable first.
Microsoft rivals IBM and Google, and even startups, have built and tested small collections of the basic building blocks of quantum computers, devices known as qubits. They make them using superconducting metal circuits operated at super-cold temperatures.
Microsoft has spent 12 years working on an alternative qubit technology, but is yet to get one working. It depends on manipulating subatomic particles known as Majorana fermions that physicists are still learning to reliably detect and control.
Microsoft executives remain optimistic about their prospects. No one has built a quantum computer large enough to be useful because the delicate quantum effects qubits rely on also make them prone to errors. Microsoft is betting on its Majorana-powered qubits because theory suggests that they will be more reliable. The project’s leaders predict they can quickly overtake competitors such as Google once they have a working qubit in hand.
Whatever form quantum computers take, making money from them will require convincing programmers to write code for the devices, just as with conventional computers. Microsoft says it wants coders to familiarize themselves with quantum algorithms and start thinking about quantum killer apps now, to get ready for the hardware.
Microsoft’s new quantum programming language is offered via the company’s popular Visual Studio toolkit, used for writing desktop and mobile apps for Windows and other platforms. The language taps into features of Visual Studio that help programmers keep track of the different parts of code, and avoid bugs. Microsoft also plans to offer tools that allow developers to simulate collections of qubits on their computers, or in the cloud, so they have somewhere to test their quantum code.
It’s unclear how much interest or influence Microsoft can generate before quantum hardware exists. Zdancewic says there are many open questions about how quantum computing languages should operate, for example to help programmers manage the technology’s unusual features and limitations. His research group has devised a language for programming quantum computers called QWire, and other academic groups are have developed their own.
Microsoft isn’t the only one trying to become the Micro-Soft of quantum computing. IBM is trying to get programmers coding for quantum computers before they’re really here. The company has connected some of its prototype quantum chips to the internet for anyone to experiment with, and offers a software development kit based on the programming language Python. Well-funded startup Rigetti Computing is pursuing a similar strategy, offering a package of programming tools called Forest.