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Microsoft Wants to Save the World With Quantum Computing

September 25, 2017, 3:47 PM UTC

Microsoft—like IBM and Google—sees huge opportunities (and challenges) in bringing quantum computing to bear on the world’s biggest problems.

The thus-far arcane world of quantum computing refers to the ability of harnessing subatomic particles to perform very complex operations. As Fortune’s Robert Hackett put it in March:

Whereas a conventional computer stores information as “bits” in two states—1 equaling “on” or 0 as “off”—a quantum computer uses “qubits” to hold multiple states at the same time, thus unleashing the weird “superposition” property of quantum mechanical particles for exponential power.

Basically, the multiple states means that a quantum computer can process many things in parallel because each subatomic particle is multitasking.

At Microsoft’s Ignite tech conference in Orlando, Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Satya Nadella used a corn maze to explain the difference between quantum computers and the current state of the art. If a classical computer were to try to figure out the maze, Nadella explained, it would start down a path, hit a wall, back track, start again, hit a wall, and back track again until it exhausted all its options. The answer would be found but it could take a lot of time.

“A quantum computer that enables you to encode information—not just a one or a zero but a one and a zero together unlocks massive parallelism,” he said. “It could take every path in the maze simultaneously. That’s the power of quantum.”

Related: Microsoft Simulator Brings Quantum Computing One Step Closer to the Masses

Microsoft, like its rival computing giants, is trying to expedite quantum computing. Nadella, flanked by a couple of physicists and mathematicians, on Monday announced a new programming language designed to help programmers craft algorithms to run on a quantum computer and plans to integrate that language into Visual Studio, Microsoft’s bundle of languages and related tools.

Related: IBM Sets Sights on Quantum Computing

Krysta Svore, a Microsoft principal researcher in this field and one of Nadella’s onstage guests, said these tools will help programmers build and test algorithms in advance and then simulate their use either on a desktop machine or on Microsoft Azure public cloud.

Related: Google and NASA Show Off Blazingly Fast Computer

The desktop iteration would simulate 20-qubit operations while use of Microsoft Azure cloud computing resources would extend that to 40 qubits. The word “simulation” is key here since to put these particles in a state where they can be handled, requires extremely low temperatures, -452 F to be exact. Svore said.

The promise of this technology is crucial. If you ask experts like those who were on stage on Monday, quantum computing will attack problems global warming and diseases. It could solve the sorts of problems that would take many lifetimes with today’s technology, in mere hours or days.

Yet the hurdles remain daunting. Dealing with particles on a sub-atomic level is tricky at best, and building a general-purpose computer that can harness them remains a challenge.