The race is on build a ‘universal’ quantum computer. Such a device could be programmed to speedily solve problems that classical computers cannot crack, potentially revolutionizing fields from pharmaceuticals to cryptography. Many of the world’s major technology firms are taking on the challenge, but Microsoft has opted for a more tortuous route than its rivals.
IBM, Google and a number of academic labs have chosen relatively mature hardware, such as loops of superconducting wire, to make quantum bits (qubits). These are the building blocks of a quantum computer: they power its speedy calculations thanks to their ability to be in a mixture (or superposition) of ‘on’ and ‘off’ states at the same time.
Microsoft, however, is hoping to encode its qubits in a kind of quasiparticle: a particle-like object that emerges from the interactions inside matter. Some physicists are not even sure that the particular quasiparticles Microsoft are working with—called non-abelian anyons—actually exist. But the firm hopes to exploit their topological properties, which make quantum states extremely robust to outside interference, to build what are called topological quantum computers. Early theoretical work on topological states of matter won three physicists the Nobel Prize in Physics on 4 October.
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