Microsoft and some big research institutions are hoping to turn the Pacific Northwest into a hotbed for quantum computing.
On Monday, Microsoft Quantum, the company’s research team devoted to the field, announced that it’s getting together with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Washington to form a coalition called the Northwest Quantum Nexus. The coalition plans to promote the development of quantum computing in the Pacific Northwest region, as well as in parts of Canada.
The partners are also hosting a two-day summit at the University of Washington on Monday and Tuesday that will bring together researchers and officials from universities, government agencies, and businesses. The goal is to encourage attendees to collaborate on quantum-computing projects and research.
“We’re really at a moment when many businesses are starting to think about the promise of quantum information sciences and the promise of quantum computing for solving the world’s most challenging problems,” Krysta Svore, general manager of quantum software at Microsoft told Business Insider.
Standard computers such as PCs and smartphones process and store information in the form of binary bits, either zeros or ones. Quantum computers, by contrast, process and store data as “qubits,” which can hold the values of zero and one simultaneously. That design difference could allow them to perform exponentially more calculations in a given amount of time than traditional computers, giving them the potential to solve immensely more complex problems.
Because of that, quantum computing is considered one of the most promising new technologies, with potential applications in areas ranging from discovering new drugs to cryptography to making stock predictions to calculating more efficient routes for airlines or the military. But the technology is still in its early stages, and analysts don’t expect quantum computers to outperform traditional ones for another five to ten years.
Research funding is increasing, but skills are short
In December, Congress passed and the president signed the National Quantum Initiative Act, which provides $1.2 billion for research in the field. Since then, there’s been increased interest from government agencies and businesses, said Nathan Baker, a director at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
“The Northwest is known for its outstanding physics and outstanding work in computing,” Baker said. “We need to be thinking about how can we deliberately move it forward to do something bigger.”
Although business and investor interest in quantum computing is growing, there’s a shortage of people with skills in the field, Svore and Baker said. That’s something they hope the Northwest Quantum Nexus will help address.
“There’s a huge gap between quantum information sciences and all of the skills you need to bring together to make it a functioning technological platform,” Baker said. “We’re going to have to be deliberate in how to build that out.”
In addition to helping form the Nexus coalition, Microsoft and the University of Washington are teaming up to teach students how to program quantum computers.
“Microsoft’s focus is producing a scalable quantum computer and bringing that forward for our customers and for our future,” Svore said. “To do that, we need to be able to accelerate the progress in quantum computing. We need to be able to educate a whole world of quantum developers.”
Microsoft’s approach differs from that of other tech giants
Microsoft is developing both quantum computing hardware and software. Its effort focuses on fragmenting electrons to store information in multiple places at once.
That’s different from the approach of companies such as IBM, Intel and Google, which are working on creating quantum computers that store data using superconducting circuits.
“Having devoted my life to this field, I’m overwhelmingly giddy with the prospect of the type of output we’ll see with the Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit,” Svore said. “I really do believe this can start the quantum revolution.”