Microsoft's quantum computers now have a language

Quantum computing's most practical use until now might have been as a plot point in sci-fi novels, but Microsoft believes the "revolutionary technology" is finally headed to a practical level. At Ignite 2017, the company's annual tech conference, the company outlined part of its roadmap toward an ecosystem of hardware and software that will bring quantum computing to a wide range of developers.

It's based on the handiwork of math researcher Michael Freedman, who has been part of the software giant's theoretical research team "Microsoft Station Q" at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Over time, that has developed into the search for a topological qubit, the quantum bit which any production quantum computer would use as its core.

Microsoft isn't straying too far from the typical quantum computing hype in terms of what the system it envisages might do. The little-understood technology would open the door to incredibly fast processing, exponentially quicker than current computers. Complex scientific mysteries currently beyond the scope of even the most potent supercomputers could be handled in hours or less.

Perhaps more mundanely, topological quantum computers could also have a sizable impact on the machine learning and AI systems we increasingly interact with on a daily basis. For instance Microsoft's Craig Mundie, the company's chief research and strategy officer, suggests Cortana's algorithms could hypothetically be trained and processed 30 times faster than currently. Such an acceleration could have a significant impact on how quickly artificial intelligence systems scale up to provide useful results and near-intuitive decisions.

For that to be practical, Microsoft points out, quantum computing can't be the reserve of a few researchers in a lab. Instead, the goal is to make the technology more available for a broader audience. The next step of that is a new programming language that the company has developed, which will run on quantum simulators but eventually be compatible, so the idea goes, with whatever quantum hardware Microsoft one day can produce.

"The same code that you're running today in simulation you can run tomorrow on our quantum computer," Krysta Svore, lead developer on Microsoft's quantum-compatible software team, said of the announcement. Importantly, the new language is integrated into Visual Studio so as to minimize the headaches involved in transitioning from old to new code. "It shouldn't look too different from the things they're already doing," Svore says.

Individual developers will be able to simulate up to 30 logical quits of processing power on their PC, while select Azure enterprise customers will get access to more than 40 quits. The software update will be available later in 2017.

Of course, what's still unclear is just when Microsoft's goal of a practical quantum computer could actually pan out. We're still some ways off any sort of production hardware, after all. According to Freedman, he hasn't even given much thought to what the technology could do.

"I've been asked about the applications of quantum computing – you know, what motivates me? Do I want to cure disease, design new materials, protect the environment?" the mathmatician says. "The truth is, it's none of that. At this point in the project, the only thing I care about is making the quantum computer work."