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Microsoft's Quantum Computer and Why It Matters

Microsoft's investments into this emerging technology made some big waves this year.

I have to admit that I was expecting this year's Microsoft Ignite keynote to be fairly routine, with no big surprises. Every Ignite keynote includes announcements and technology demonstrations, but some are definitely more exciting than others. Throughout most of the keynote, nothing happened to change my opinion that this was a routine keynote with no over the top product announcements, but then it happened. Satya Nadella announced that Microsoft had been working on a quantum computer, and even brought out a prototype.

For those who do not have a background in quantum physics, the big takeaway was that a quantum computer is difficult to build, but performs calculations at an incredibly fast pace. That's great and all, but there are plenty of fast computers in the world. So why does a quantum computer matter?

Microsoft is not the only company that is working to develop a quantum computer. There are several technology firms, governments, and militaries that are allegedly also working to create quantum computers. In 2015, Google released a benchmark from an early prototype, and found that it completed a calculation roughly 100,000,000 times faster than a traditional computer. I will attempt to explain where this speed comes from in a separate post. For right now, I want to talk about the implications, both positive and negative, of quantum computing.

Quantum computers are going to primarily be useful for operations that are extremely mathematically intensive. The will probably offer little to no benefit for other types of computing. You will probably never have a quantum computing laptop that is used for lightweight tasks such as word processing.

To give you an idea of why this is the case (putting aside practicality issues), consider the current state of traditional computing. Processing power is very often the one resource that exists in abundance in today's computers. When a particular application runs slowly, it is rarely the CPU's fault. More often, the performance problem can be attributed to a storage bottleneck or to a network bottleneck. Even so, there are some workloads that put hardly any stress on a system's hard disk or network connection, but max out the CPU. Let me give you an example.

A few years ago, I was contacted by law enforcement and asked if I could crack a password protected ZIP file that the agency had accidentally locked itself out of. I used an off-the-shelf password cracking tool, and distributed the workload across six physical CPUs, each of which had eight cores. Even with all of that computing power, the tool ran for weeks and I honestly cannot remember if I ever managed to crack the password or not. In any case, this is an example of a workload that was extremely CPU intensive, but that used almost no hard disk or network resources. This is also the type of workload that would have been perfectly suited to a quantum computer. A quantum computer would probably have been able to crack the password in a fraction of a second.

This raises an important point. Quantum computing has the potential to completely undermine many of the encryption algorithms and other security mechanisms that we use today. Thankfully, quantum computers aren't one of those things that will be readily available to any wannabe hacker with a credit card, but the technology will probably become more accessible over time.

My guess is that we will see fully functional quantum computing within our lifetime, but that the special needs of a quantum computer (such as extreme cryogenics) will mean that you won't just be able to pick up a quantum computer at Best Buy. My prediction is that in 25 years, some of the larger, well-funded universities will have their own quantum computers, and that public cloud providers such as Amazon and Microsoft will probably also have quantum computing capabilities.

In the case of cloud providers, my guess is that subscribers won't have the option of creating quantum VMs, but they probably will be able to pay to run jobs on quantum computers.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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