By John P. Mello Jr.
Sep 27, 2017 10:43 AM PT
Microsoft on Monday announced that it has been working on a language for a computer that doesn’t exist.
The company unveiled the language — as yet unnamed — at its Ignite conference in Orlando, Florida. Part of its Visual Studio product, it will run on a quantum simulator and quantum computer.
Microsoft introduced the language during a presentation about the company’s progress toward developing a topological qubit and an ecosystem of hardware and software for developers to produce wares using the power of quantum computing.
“Quantum computing is the next phase in computing,” said Jack E. Gold, principal analyst at J.Gold Associates.
“It’s the new frontier, and Microsoft wants to be a major player,” he added.
“Other companies have already introduced languages, so Microsoft needed to do it, too,” Gold told TechNewsWorld.
Qubits, or quantum bits, encode information in a quantum computer. Their analog in the computing devices we use today is the binary bit.
Binary bits store information in one of two states: zero or one. Qubits, which represent atoms, ions, photons or electrons, can encode information in many states simultaneously, opening the door for computers millions of times more powerful than anything we have crunching zeroes and ones today.
A Qubit Apart
When it comes to qubits, Microsoft is taking a road less traveled. Companies like IBM and Google, as well as a number of academic labs, are using mature hardware solutions, like loops of semiconducting wire, to make their qubits.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has been exploring a different way of encoding information in qubits, through quasiparticles called “non-abelian anyons.” If Microsoft can exploit the topological properties of the quasiparticle, it could create qubits more robust and less susceptible to outside interference than the qubits created by its competitors.
Topological reasoning is the holy grail of any computational model because domain-specificity can be abandoned, said Josh Mayfield, a platform specialist with FireMon.
“Gone are the rigid structures and rules for binary computation,” he told TechNewsWorld. “With superposition of data, computers are leaping from a flat world into a world with dozens of potential dimensions.”
Tapping the Power
Microsoft’s qubit efforts are notable in two ways, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.
“First, the company’s topological quantum computing project is different than other publicly available quantum solutions, and could theoretically be applied to different areas of problem solving,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“In addition, the company’s plan to leverage its Visual Studio and other programming technologies in its efforts should open its quantum solution to a wider audience of individuals and organizations,” King said.
While a quantum computer’s ability to perform many tasks simultaneously makes it very powerful, tapping into that power will be challenging.
“For this vast amount of processing power to become practicable, we must determine a way to control and read those qubits,” said Stephen Ezell, vice president for global innovation policy at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.
“A programming language could potentially do just that,” he told TechNewsWorld, “and it would have tremendous implications for fields ranging from cybersecurity and cryptography to national security.”
Programming a quantum computer will be a liberating experience for developers, noted FireMon’s Mayfield.
“Programmers have always been shackled with the rigidity of computers: ‘You have a great idea — now translate that into the language the computer can understand.’ Imagine that rigidity being removed,” he suggested.
“The new programming language can be conceptual in nature, rather than concrete and exact. Quantum computers can ‘get the gist’ of what it is receiving without blundering into errors of imprecise translation,” Mayfield explained.
Quantum computers will impact a number of fields — from weather prediction to economic modeling to healthcare delivery. They also will impact the encryption field.
Encryption schemes like AES with large keys will be safe from quantum computers for the time being.
“To break current cryptosystems, quantum computers must have between 500 and 2,000 qubits,” Curran told TechNewsWorld. “However, existing quantum computers that we know about only operate with less than 15 qubits at present, so there is no immediate worry.”
Quantum computers also will change the scientific landscape.
“They’re going to enable simulations to be used to answer basic scientific questions, making simulation science an equal partner with traditional ‘theory and experiment’ methods as an avenue of scientific discovery,” ITIF’s Ezell said.
The computers will be able to run millions of models at once to discover which works best, he noted.
When will quantum computers become a practical reality? The jury is still out.
“I really cannot see working implementations of proper qubit size in the next 10 years,” Curran said.
“You’re not going to see real commercial applications and volume for at least five years, maybe 10,” Gold predicted.
“Right now, quantum computing is in an early experimentation phase with systems that are relatively small — or like Microsoft’s, mainly useful for simulation experiments,” King observed. “I expect more practicable, useful systems to be available in two to three years.”