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Microsoft may have finally made quantum computing useful

The company says it has developed the most error-free quantum solution yet.

Microsoft

The dream of quantum computing has always been exciting: What if we could build a machine working at the quantum level that could tackle complex calculations exponentially faster than a computer limited by classical physics? But despite seeing IBM, Google and others announce iterative quantum computing hardware, they're still not being used for any practical purposes. That might change with today's announcement from Microsoft and Quantinuum, who say they've developed the most error-free quantum computing system yet.

While classical computers and electronics rely on binary bits as their basic unit of information (they can be either on or off), quantum computers work with qubits, which can exist in a superposition of two states at the same time. The trouble with qubits is that they're prone to error, which is the main reason today's quantum computers (known as Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum [NISQ] computers) are just used for research and experimentation.

Microsoft's solution was to group physical qubits into virtual qubits, which allows it to apply error diagnostics and correction without destroying them, and run it all over Quantinuum's hardware. The result was an error rate that was 800 times better than relying on physical qubits alone. Microsoft claims it was able to run more than 14,000 experiments without any errors.

According to Jason Zander, EVP of Microsoft's Strategic Missions and Technologies division, this achievement could finally bring us to "Level 2 Resilient" quantum computing, which would be reliable enough for practical applications.

"The task at hand for the entire quantum ecosystem is to increase the fidelity of qubits and enable fault-tolerant quantum computing so that we can use a quantum machine to unlock solutions to previously intractable problems," Zander wrote in a blog post today. "In short, we need to transition to reliable logical qubits — created by combining multiple physical qubits together into logical ones to protect against noise and sustain a long (i.e., resilient) computation."

Microsoft's announcement is a "strong result," according to Aram Harrow, a professor of physics at MIT focusing on quantum information and computing. "The Quantinuum system has impressive error rates and control, so it was plausible that they could do an experiment like this, but it's encouraging to see that it worked," he said in an e-mail to Engadget. "Hopefully they'll be able to keep maintaining or even improving the error rate as they scale up."

Microsoft Quantum Computing
Microsoft Quantum Computing (Microsoft)

Researchers will be able to get a taste of Microsoft's reliable quantum computing via Azure Quantum Elements in the next few months, where it will be available as a private preview. The goal is to push even further to Level 3 quantum supercomputing, which will theoretically be able to tackle incredibly complex issues like climate change and exotic drug research. It's unclear how long it'll take to actually reach that point, but for now, at least we're moving one step closer towards practical quantum computing.

"Getting to a large-scale fault-tolerant quantum computer is still going to be a long road," Professor Harrow wrote. "This is an important step for this hardware platform. Along with the progress on neutral atoms, it means that the cold atom platforms are doing very well relative to their superconducting qubit competitors."