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Why tech titans are leaping into quantum computing

D-Wave computer
A team member at D-Wave Systems, based in Burnaby, B.C.,, works on the dilution refrigerator system that cools the processors in the company’s quantum computer. (D-Wave Systems Photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The small world of quantum physics is a big deal on the frontier of computer science.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella rates quantum computing as one of three key technologies that will shape his company’s future, along with artificial intelligence and mixed reality. Google and NASA are working with D-Wave Systems to blaze a quantum trail. IBM has its Q initiative, and Boeing’s newly formed Disruptive Computing & Networks unit is targeting quantum as well.

There’s been a White House summit on quantum information science, and Congress is considering legislation that’d give quantum computing a $1.3 billion boost over the next 10 years.

What’s going on?

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White House issues quantum computing strategy

Quantum summit
A White House summit on quantum information science brings together Jake Taylor of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, France Cordova of the National Science Foundation, Paul Dabbar of the U.S. Energy Department, Walter Copan of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Mike Griffin of the Defense Department. (White House / OSTP Photo via Twitter)

Federal officials and industry leaders — including representatives from Microsoft and Google — met today at a White House summit to spark new initiatives in quantum information science.

Among the recommendations contained in a newly released strategic overview: setting up a U.S. Quantum Consortium, modeled after past efforts such as the non-profit, industry-led Semiconductor Research Corp.; and establishing a set of Grand Challenges to focus quantum computing research.

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Quantum computer simulates superconductors

Quantum simulation
A 2,048-qubit D-Wave 2000Q processor, shown in the lower half of this image, was used to simulate the behavior of a quantum magnetic system depicted in the upper half. (D-Wave Systems Illustration)

One of the prime applications for quantum computers is to simulate natural quantum phenomena, and in a newly published study, researchers from Canada’s D-Wave Systems have demonstrated how to do it.

The phenomenon that they simulated involves a topological phase transition associated with thin-film superconductivity and superfluidity. It’s called the Kosterlitz-Thouless phase transition, and figuring out how the transition could be done earned Brown University’s Michael Kosterlitz and the University of Washington’s David Thouless shares of the 2016 Nobel Prize in physics.

Today Kosterlitz hailed the quantum computer simulation, which is described in a paper published by Nature.

“This paper represents a breakthrough in the simulation of physical systems which are otherwise essentially impossible,” Kosterlitz said in a D-Wave news release. “The test reproduces most of the expected results, which is a remarkable achievement.”

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A new record for quantum entanglement

Quantum entanglement satellite experiment
A schematic shows how China’s Micius satellite could theoretically enable secure quantum communications. (SMOC Graphic)

Chinese researchers report that they’ve set a new distance record for quantum teleportation through space, the phenomenon that Albert Einstein once scoffed at as “spooky action at a distance.”

The technology isn’t yet ready for prime time, but eventually it could open the way for a new type of unbreakable encryption scheme based on the weirdness of quantum physics.

The experiment, reported today in the journal Science, involved transmitting pairs of entangled photons from China’s orbiting Micius satellite to ground stations in the mountains of the Tibetan plateau, separated by more than 745 miles (1,200 kilometers).

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Purdue joins Microsoft on quantum mission

Purdue's Michael Manfra
Professor Michael Manfra heads Station Q Purdue, which is part of Microsoft’s campaign to create a topological quantum computer. (Purdue University Photo / Rebecca Wilcox)

Microsoft’s big bet to build a usable quantum computer based on two-dimensional quasiparticles just got bigger.

Purdue University says it has signed a five-year agreement with Microsoft to expand its role in an international quantum computing collaboration known as Station Q.

Microsoft announced last November that it was moving ahead with its Station Q campaign to build a working computer. The consortium now extends to Purdue as well as TU Delft in the Netherlands, the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark, the University of Sydney in Australia, ETH Zurich in Switzerland and the University of Maryland.

Purdue has been working with Microsoft on quantum computing for more than a year, but the newly signed agreement deepens the connections at Station Q Purdue.

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Microsoft bets big on quantum computers

Todd Holmdahl
Microsoft executive Todd Holmdahl is leading the effort to create scalable quantum hardware and software. (Red Box Pictures via Microsoft / Scott Eklund)

Microsoft says it’s moving ahead from just talking about quantum computing to building an actual quantum computer, based on the physics that won a Nobel Prize this year.

The project will be headed by longtime Microsoft executive Todd Holmdahl, who previously played key roles in developing the Xbox gaming console, the Kinect motion sensor and the HoloLens augmented-reality system. Now he’s corporate vice president of Microsoft’s quantum program.

“I think we’re at an inflection point in which we are ready to go from research to engineering,” Holmdahl said in a Microsoft blog posting about the project on Nov. 20.

Microsoft isn’t alone in the field: For several years, Google has been working with NASA and a Vancouver-area company called D-Wave to evaluate quantum computer designs.

But neither is Microsoft a newcomer in the field: The Redmond-based software giant has had researchers exploring the quantum frontier for more than 15 years.

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