Almost everyone agrees that quantum computing will be one of the next major breakthroughs in information technology, but there is little agreement about what form quantum computers will take. Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) has been involved in quantum computing since 2006, but despite having relatively little to show for its eight-year investment, the software giant has decided to double up on its bet on quantum computers.

Microsoft quantum computing

Overview of Microsoft’s quantum computing

Quantum computing was originally theorized by physicist Richard Feynman in 1982, but until recently had remained an area to be explored by academics, the National Security Agency and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

However, quantum computing has caught the attention of the corporate world more recently. Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) began its quantum computing research effort back in 2006 with the Station Q research group at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This research group, like the ones at IBM and elsewhere, focused their efforts on creating qubits based on measuring the spin of an electron or the polarization of a photon. 

While several research teams have managed to create individual qubits, they are ephemeral and difficult to maintain. Building the the arrays of hundreds or thousands of qubit circuits required to build a practical quantum computer has proven extremely difficult.

D-Wave Systems, a Canadian firm with funding from NASA, Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOGL) (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT), claims that it has been able to speed up some computing problems based on what it describes as “the first commercial quantum computer,” but a recent study of the results by a group of academics casts doubts on D-Wave’s claims.

Topological quantum computing

Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) has decided to support a new approach called  “topological quantum computing,” which controls the motions of pairs of subatomic particles as they orbit around one another to manipulate entangled quantum bits.

By controlling how the particles weave around each other, topological quantum computers would create imaginary threads whose twists could be used as a powerful computing system. Critically, the motions of these threads would correct errors that quantum computer designers have struggled with to date.

The particular subatomic particles involved here are called Majorana fermions, which have just recently been proven to exist. Proving the existence of the Majorana is the first step in developing qubits for this new form of quantum computing.

Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) supported research, led by the physicist Leo Kouwenhoven at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, undertook an experiment in 2012 that produced strong evidence that the particles exist.

A recent article in the New York Times points out that Microsoft is providing funding for 10 of the 20 research teams currently working on topological quantum computing.