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Microsoft's Azure Quantum hits preview: Not so much quantum computing as it is quantum-inspired computing

You'll have to go to one of Redmond's partners for something less simulated

The hype-o-meter has gone up a notch with the arrival of Azure Quantum in Public Preview.

Microsoft has bet big on the forever-coming-next-year technology, quantum computing. It unveiled a new language, Q#, back in 2017 and its Quantum Development Kit (QDK) emerged the same year.

The QDK was ported to Linux and macOS in 2018, and by 2019 had been open-sourced.

However, actual hardware on which to run the problem-solving code has been conspicuous by its absence. Companies such as Canada-based D-Wave has kit available for those with deep enough pockets. D-Wave also operates Leap, signing up to which will give users a free minute of direct QC access time or 20 minutes on its quantum-classical hybrid gear.

Azure Quantum is, according to Microsoft, "the world's first full-stack, public cloud ecosystem for quantum solutions."

Cloud-based quantum computing capabilities come from Honeywell Quantum Solutions and IonQ. "Optimisation solutions" provided by 1Qbit and Microsoft run on considerably more prosaic hardware along the lines of CPUs, GPUs, and FPGAs. Quantum principles are applied by algorithms running on classical hardware.

The theory goes that by taking a quantum-inspired approach, problem solving in fields such as chemistry, finance, or logistics can be accelerated.

As for how to gets one's hands on such exotic tech, those "Quantum Inspired Optimization" (QIO) solvers running on classical hardware start with a free first hour and are available in the Azure US East and West, UK, Europe, and Japan regions. The price rises swiftly once that first hour is exhausted. Other quantum technologies depend on pricing from Microsoft's partners.

Microsoft is also by no means the only game in town. Amazon unveiled Braket last year, affording access to quantum annealing hardware from D-Wave as well ion-trap devices from IonQ. Classically powered circuit simulators are also an option.

Last month Dell's global chief technology officer, John Roese, pondered what the future held in store in terms of tech and listed quantum technology as one of the next big things, but noted: "Viability is still a long way away from us. We haven't figured out how to really build and scale quantum computing devices."

He did, however, state that 2021 would be "the year of experimentation". The arrival of Azure Quantum could be an indicator that the long-promised technology might finally be edging nearer.

Or maybe not.

Or both.

The clue is in the name. ®

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