Microsoft's Station Q Delves Into Quantum Computing

The software maker's quantum computing lab is exploring ways to tame qubits—and perhaps help shape the future of IT—at UC Santa Barbara.

Microsoft Quantum Computing

IBM and Google aren't the only tech giants that have set their sights on quantum computing. Redmond, Wash-based Microsoft is also researching the potentially game-changing field.

Microsoft is peeling the curtain back a bit on Station Q, a decade-old quantum computing lab situated on the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. The lab exists to study the intersection of computer science and quantum physics and eventually build a quantum computer.

Quantum computing is a field of research that has captured the imagination of the tech industry as the limits of physics promise to one day repeal Moore's Law, perhaps in the near future.

Moore's Law—named after its originator, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore—states that the number of transistors in a chip double roughly every 18 to 24 months. The problem facing the digital chip industry is twofold. Not only is it growing increasingly difficult to shrink transistors, one day they will be physically incapable of doing so.

Then there is the matter of bits, the "ones and zeroes" that have dictated chip design for decades.

In a recent report on IBM's multibillion-dollar plan to research the future of chips, eWEEK's Jeffrey Burt explained: "Quantum computing would enable systems to process millions of calculations at the same time rather than one at a time. In traditional computing, bits can only values of '1' or '0.' However, quantum bits—or 'qubits'—can hold values of 1, 0, or both at the same time, opening up the possibility of systems running through millions of calculations simultaneously."

Michael Freedman, director of Station Q, and Microsoft researchers are devising ways of bringing such big-problem-solving systems to fruition. First, they have to solve the problem of "fussy" qubits.

"A bump in temperature, a bit of electricity, a stray cosmic wave, a slight jostle—any sort of interference at all (even an inside job—a distraction from fellow qubits)—will cause them to 'de-cohere' from their quantum state, at which point the calculation and information are gone," explained the company in its behind-the-scenes series of posts, Microsoft Stories.

"Scaling enough qubits to be useful, doing so in a stable way, and keeping them from falling apart—these are some of the fundamental challenges of the field," said the company before claiming that Microsoft and its partners are chasing those challenges "at a full sprint."

Station Q is basing their strategy to create a stable platform for quantum information on topological mathematics, Freedman's area of expertise. Topological mathematics is "the study of geometric forms that remain unchanged when bent or stretched," according to Microsoft.

Once considered speculative and "out in the fringes," Station Q's ideas are catching on, Peter Lee, head of Microsoft Research, said. "Now, I think you could argue that the topological approach has become mainstream. Physicists don't think we're crazy people anymore," he stated.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...