Like many 2020 technical conferences, this year's Microsoft Build 2020 was a digital event. Along with other announcements, Microsoft highlighted Azure Quantum.
Microsoft Azure Quantum is a full-stack, open cloud quantum ecosystem first revealed in 2019. Azure Quantum includes access to quantum hardware offered by three different companies. The service also supports the use of Microsoft's open-source Quantum Development Kit (QDK), Microsoft Azure classical computer, and a quantum simulator. Microsoft doesn't have a quantum computer on the platform. However, it has been working on a topological computer for over ten years without much visible progress.
Last November, Microsoft announced it was adding quantum to its Azure cloud, and this year select customers and partners will be able to preview the Azure Quantum platform. In addition to Microsoft's open-source QDK, it also added two new modules to the free online training platform called Microsoft Learn.
According to Microsoft, it made enhancements to Azure Quantum as a result of a 2019 survey of potential quantum developers. Microsoft's blog had a message for developers: " You've told us that you want to learn more about where quantum could impact your business today, to have easier ways to start writing quantum code, and to run applications against a range of quantum and classical hardware. So, at Microsoft Build, we’re introducing new experiences for Azure Quantum that help you on your journey to becoming a quantum developer.”
Azure quantum developers will be able to use existing libraries or write algorithms with Q# and QDK, then evaluate them on one or all three different quantum hardware technologies. This combination of resources will allow developers to write and test quantum programs without worrying about the underlying physics of quantum hardware.
There is also a Microsoft workshop planned for developers later this year. It will cover principles of quantum computing, optimization algorithms for classical computers, overviews of Q# and the QDK, and a virtual lab to help create quantum algorithms.
Azure Quantum platform
Azure quantum offers three quantum computers: Honeywell Quantum Solutions, IonQ, and Quantum Computing Circuits.
Honeywell and IonQ both use trapped-ion technology. An isotope of a rare-earth metal called ytterbium is used to create ion qubits. Precision lasers remove an outer electron from an ytterbium atom to form an ion. Then, lasers move the ions into their proper positions where oscillating voltage fields hold them in place. Although both companies use trapped ions for qubits, there are architectural differences between computers.
Quantum Circuits Inc. (QCI) is a spinoff from Yale University's Applied Physics Department. It uses superconducting qubits for computational bits, which are the most commonly used qubits. Google, Intel, IBM, and Rigetti all use superconducting qubits. The qubits are small coils fabricated on chips resembling those found in classical computers and exhibit quantum properties at a few degrees above absolute zero.
The hybrid environment on Azure Quantum
Some calculations are more suited to classical computers, while others, because of speedup, can be better done on quantum hardware.
In a conversation with Patrick Moorhead and me, Tony Uttley, president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions, shared a belief expressed by many other quantum experts. Uttley explained that, by necessity, the quantum ecosystem would eventually evolve into a hybrid platform, similar to Azure Quantum, where classical and quantum computers routinely work hand-in-hand to solve complex problems.
Uttley also observed that Azure Quantum allows developers to benchmark their algorithms on three different quantum computers. Differences in each computer's architecture, fidelities, and connectivity determines how the hardware uses quantum effects such as superposition, entanglement, and interference. And, depending on the algorithm, those differences may produce different benchmarking results.
The future of quantum cloud services
Quantum computing is still in the development stage. It was only a few years ago that some scientists were skeptical if quantum computing would even work. Today, there are few skeptics. Based on recent developments, it now looks like quantum computers will be able to tackle a few meaningful problems within three to five years.
IBM calls this the Quantum Ready stage. It believes that businesses cannot wait to train their people or wait to think about how quantum might integrate into their business processes and applications.
Since most businesses either don't need or can't afford a quantum computer, quantum cloud services offer seamless and inexpensive ways for almost any corporation to begin the process of planning its future.
When quantum computing first begins to change the world, it will reward early adopters.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.