Microsoft has set its sights on a quantum future, with the tech giant recently announcing its ambitious plan to build a quantum supercomputer within the next decade. According to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, this marks a significant milestone in the company's quantum computing journey. “Our goal is to compress the next 250 years of chemistry and materials science progress into the next 25,” Nadella said during the announcement.
Introducing Azure Quantum Elements
As part of its quantum supercomputing roadmap, Microsoft has unveiled Azure Quantum Elements, a system designed to accelerate scientific discovery in the fields of chemistry and materials science. Azure Quantum Elements leverages the scale of Azure High-Performance Computing (HPC) and the speed of AI to help scientists explore the vast search space of potential stable molecules and materials, a number believed to surpass the number of atoms in the known universe. Jason Zander, executive vice president of Strategic Missions and Technologies at Microsoft, said about the system's potential impact: “With Azure Quantum Elements, scientists can navigate limitless possibilities and narrow them down to the most promising candidates with unprecedented speed.”
Azure Quantum Elements Preview Launch
Azure Quantum Elements, set to be available in private preview on June 30, is a proprietary software tailored to the needs of chemical and materials scientists. It is built on Microsoft's investments in artificial intelligence (AI), HPC, and future quantum technologies. The system allows researchers to explore more materials, potentially scaling from thousands of candidates to tens of millions. It also promises to speed up certain chemistry simulations by 500,000 times.
The system also includes a new feature called Copilot in Azure Quantum, which lets researchers use natural language to find and visualize data or quickly develop, configure, and run simulations. This feature is designed to boost researcher productivity through automated workflows.
Azure Quantum Elements includes tools that can run on today's classical computers in the cloud, helping scientists prepare for a quantum future. These tools can determine whether a quantum computer would be needed for a particular problem and suggest the best methods and algorithms to use. If the problem does require a quantum computer, the resource estimator will determine how many qubits – the basic building blocks for quantum computation – are required.
New Quantum Performance Metrics
Microsoft has also introduced a new performance metric to provide an objective understanding of the speed and reliability of a quantum supercomputer. The Quantum Operations Per Second (rQOPS) metric measures how many reliable operations a quantum computer can perform accurately and consistently within a one-second timeframe. Microsoft aims for its first quantum supercomputer to deliver one million rQOPS.
Azure Quantum Elements has already been tested by industry leaders including BASF and Johnson Matthey. Ansgar Schaefer, a vice president at BASF who leads the company's quantum chemistry research, emphasized the importance of the tool. “To be able to improve products and processes, it's really about understanding the chemistry behind them on a microscopic level. And the more complex the challenge, the more computing power is required. [Azure Quantum Elements] is a tool that gives us additional required capacity to help advance completely new research approaches and increase the efficiency and speed of development,” Schaefer is quoted.
Microsoft's Quantum Research and Competitors
Microsoft is one of the leaders in quantum computing development, achieving some significant breakthroughs in the push beyond supercomputers. However, there are many other research projects outside of Microsoft in the same field. In 2020 Chinese researchers claimed having achieved a breakthrough by reaching quantum supremacy. This essentially means evidence quantum computing will outperform supercomputers.
A team from the University of Science and Technology of China confirmed in Science they developed a system called Jiuzhang that can complete a calculation in minutes that a supercomputer would take 10,000 years to solve. It's the groups quantum supremacy achievement, following Google‘s own self proclaimed supremacy breakthrough in 2019.
The Possible Impact of Quantum Supercomputers
The development of a quantum supercomputer has the potential to revolutionize many industries. Quantum computers can solve complex problems beyond classical computers, leading to breakthroughs in cryptography, optimization, machine learning, and materials science. For example, quantum computers could crack unbreakable encryption codes, completely overhauling internet security protocols.
The business world could undergo a significant transformation with the implementation of quantum computing in various industries. Pharmaceutical companies could use quantum computers to model complex molecular structures, leading to the discovery of new drugs. Financial institutions could use quantum computing for risk modeling and portfolio optimization. Early adopters of quantum technology could gain a significant competitive advantage, reshaping industry hierarchies.
Politics would also be affected by quantum computing as technology could become a key area of international competition. Countries that lead in quantum technology could gain strategic advantages, particularly in cryptography and cybersecurity. This could result in a new “quantum race” among nations. The potential for quantum computers to break current encryption methods could have profound implications for national security and international relations.