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Microsoft claims breakthrough in quantum computer system

If true, Redmond is capable sustaining a stable working environment somewhere after all

Microsoft has claimed an important breakthrough in its journey to build and operate a viable quantum computer.

The Windows giant on Monday said it was able to create the right circumstance in which it could sustain its version of a quantum bit, which it calls a "topological qubit."

Like all organizations claiming quantum computing superiority, Microsoft argued its qubit is a stepping stone to a "quantum computer that is expected to be more stable than machines built with other types of known qubits, and therefore scale like no other."

Microsoft also said its topological qubit breakthrough is the next step to creating a million-qubit quantum computer, a milestone many agree is a minimum spec needed to solve large-scale problems not possible on classical computers today.

The IT goliath is taking multiple approaches to quantum computing. One is to build futuristic quantum computers based on quasiparticles that have existed in theory. Microsoft has also hired notable academics to solve challenges in physics to create topological quantum computers.

At the same time, Microsoft's venture capital arm is backing faster approaches to quantum by funding companies like PsiQuantum, which hopes to get an error-corrected system the size of a datacenter up and running in the coming years.

Error correction

Microsoft published the thinking behind its topological quantum computer in 2007; the tech uses quasiparticles called non-Abelian anyons, which at the time existed only in theory. In 2015, Microsoft published a description of abelian processors suitable for calculations in quantum systems.

It was hoped that non-Abelion anyons could be used to build a quantum computer system that doesn't need error correction to function. Generally speaking, qubits are fragile, and prone to interference from matter and electromagnetic radiation that can wreck calculations. Microsoft’s approach is to side step this and eliminate the need for error correction by creating a qubit with "built-in protection from environmental noise, which means it should take far fewer qubits to perform useful computation and correct errors," the biz said.

The supposed breakthrough announced on Monday is the next iteration of bringing a topological quantum computer from theory into the real world. Redmond's researchers said they managed to create Majorana zero modes at the ends of a nanowire, which creates a protection layer for the qubit and enables computing operations.

"The only way to unlock the quantum information is to look at the combined state of both Majorana zero modes at the same time. Taking these measurements in a strategic way enables both quantum operations and creates inherent protection for the qubit," Microsoft's Jennifer Langston wrote.

The research team previously saw the signature on one end of the wire, but needed to see it on both ends to create a viable system on which to build its topological quantum systems.

Microsoft managed to tune the Majorana zero modes to the topological phase by using exotic material and developing a process that layers semiconducting and superconducting materials onto a device.

"In the presence of specific magnetic fields and voltages, the devices can produce a topological phase with a pair of Majorana zero modes — characterized by telltale energy signatures that will appear at either end of a nanowire under the right conditions — and a measurable topological gap," Microsoft's Langston wrote.

This is just one breakthrough in a long road ahead for Microsoft, whose physicists are still establishing concepts around anyons, which is viewed as quasiparticle beyond the standard fermions and boson particles.

The use of superconducting material indicates that the system will need cryogenic cooling, which is typically measured at being below minus 180 degrees Celsius, or minus 292 degrees Fahrenheit. Microsoft has been working with companies like Rambus on cooling technologies for quantum components. ®

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