Quantum computing rivals muster software power in new ‘arms race’

Microsoft may face a slight hitch in achieving its goals in quantum computing. The sub-atomic particles on which its ambitions are based, known as Majorana fermions, have yet to he harnessed in any useful way.

“That’s a subject of some debate” among researchers, says Daniel Lidar, a professor of chemistry and electrical engineering at the University of Southern California. “The theory is quite mature. But the experiments are lagging behind.”

Not that the world’s biggest software company is about to let such a seemingly existential question get in its way. Last week, it posed a similar challenge to its developer community — create software programs to run on quantum computing machines that do not yet exist.

It was part of a battle for attention that has broken out over one of the world’s most important future technologies. If the tech industry’s predictions are right, computers that harness quantum effects will not only be exponentially faster than current machines, but they will be able to solve problems beyond the reach of today’s “classical” computers — including difficult tasks such as designing molecules to create new drugs or breakthrough materials.

In a book published this month, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, describes the current battle over quantum computing as “an arms race” as important as AI or virtual and augmented reality, though it is one that has “gone largely unnoticed”.

Even though general-purpose quantum computers are still beyond the horizon, Microsoft’s bid last week to win over software developers points to the speed with which the technology may be approaching.

It follows similar moves this year by IBM and quantum start-up Rigetti Computing, both of which have also tried to get developers interested in writing programs for their forthcoming quantum machines. Meanwhile, more than 100 turned up last week at a developer event held by D-Wave, the first company to ship a quantum computer,…

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