Microsoft held its annual Ignite 2017 conference for developers and IT pros last month, with CEO Satya Nadella delivering the opening keynote. During his presentation, Nadella called out three technologies Microsoft believes are critical to its near-future goals: mixed reality (also referred to as augmented reality), artificial intelligence, and quantum computing.
Quantum computing is a cutting edge technology that Microsoft and other big industry players have been devoting significant resources to in recent years. So what, exactly does quantum computing do? And what kind of impact could it have on the industry if the technology ever makes it to market?
Quantum computing basics
Quantum computing combines computer science and quantum mechanics into a framework that can be used to build a new type of computer — one that's far more powerful than any transistor-based machine we have today.
Quantum computing is a relatively young science that is arguably still more theoretical than a source of working solutions. It's the great potential of those possible solutions, however, that has given quantum computing its high priority inside Microsoft and other tech companies.
Any discussion of quantum computing comes with a steep learning curve. While computer science is complicated, it pales in comparison to the complexity of quantum mechanics.
For many IT pros, even the most basic reading on quantum theory can cause headaches, with the main takeaway being that — at the subatomic level — the particles that make up our world are very contrary. Really, they should be made to sit in the corner until they conduct themselves in a proper manner.
Thankfully, there are some high-level concepts that can help IT pros understand the basics of how quantum computing works.
Today's computers process data in binary bits — the well-known 0s and 1s we all know and love. In contrast, quantum computers employ quantum bits, also known as qubits. While a binary bit can only exist in one of two states (zero and one), a quantum bit can exist in both of these states as well as a superposition of both states. Superposition basically refers to a quantum system's ability to exist in multiple states at the same time.
When qubits exist in superposition, the state that one qubit is in can be correlated to the state of a another qubit. This property is known as entanglement. (See? I told you this stuff gives people headaches.)
The quantum physics principles of superposition and entanglement mean that multiple qubits can be made to act as a unified system of highly complex switches, resulting in massive computing power that grows exponentially with every qubit added to the system.
For a qubit to work, it must be able to attain multiple states at the same time. Enter the quantum particles: atoms, electrons, and photons are all candidates to serve as the raw material to build qubits for a quantum computer.
What will quantum computers do?
Quantum computing experts generally agree that quantum computers are unlike any system we currently have. This uniqueness makes it unclear exactly what quantum computers could be used for. On IBM's quantum computing website, the use cases are all described in terms of what quantum computers could do or may do, as opposed to what they can do or will do.
The proving point for quantum computers is something Google refers to as quantum superiority. This term refers to an event where a quantum computer is able to solve a problem that a traditional computer is incapable of solving — either because the problem is too complex, or the amount of time a traditional computer needs to solve the problem exceeds the expected lifespan of our solar system.
One science that could be advanced with quantum computing is cryptography. Cryptography requires the factoring of very large numbers, something that can choke the CPUs of current computing systems, but a task that quantum computers would excel at. Many experts agree that quantum computers and information security are a good fit.
Quantum computers may also provide a way to simulate quantum systems, giving scientists the ability to observe interactions between molecules and atoms in incredible detail. This type of research could lead to the development of new medicines and treatments for diseases, or may enable the creation of new materials for engineers to use in vehicles, buildings, and superstructures like bridges and stadiums.
Are quantum computers really coming?
As mentioned earlier, there is still more theory surrounding quantum computing than practical hands-on solutions. Progress, however, is being made toward creating quantum computer hardware, software stacks, and development environments.
Given its current investment in quantum computing, Microsoft is one of the best sources of news and information for IT pros who want to keep tabs on this up-and-coming technology. A good place to start is Microsoft's quantum technology website, which contains a growing collection of reading material as well as video clips and a link to sign up for the company's quantum computing newsletter.
Microsoft also runs a quantum computing blog containing some highly-technical articles, as well as news from the company's R&D efforts. One recent announcement mentioned a quantum computing programming language which could be made available to developers by the end of 2017.
Microsoft isn't the only company working on quantum computing technology. Intel has provided a 17-qubit quantum processor for testing by its partner QuTech. Big Blue's IBM Q initiative is aiming to build commercially available quantum computers for businesses and science institutions. And, Google has said its quantum computing research project called Quantum A.I. could provide proof of quantum superiority by the end of this year.
Are there IT certifications for quantum computing?
At this time, there are no specific IT certifications for quantum computing. One can find courses in quantum computing offered by colleges and universities in the United States as part of computer science degree programs or as standalone classes.
Given that the major proponents of quantum computing include companies like Microsoft, IBM, Google, and Intel, the training and certification offerings for this field are expected to become available when the technology becomes commercially viable and gains adoption in the business world.
Until then, IT pros may want to follow quantum computing developments, with an eye toward eventually seeing this innovative new technology appear in relevant environments.