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Microsoft bets on topological qubits as future of quantum computing

Experts react to Microsoft's 'moonshot' claim on the future of quantum computing. Also: Wal-Mart joins Workplace; the Twitter-Russia connection.

Microsoft has immense confidence in the potential of the long-elusive quantum computer. And once these magical...

machines are really here, the company wants them to speak Microsoft.

Earlier this week, at its Microsoft Ignite conference, the company unveiled its progress on developing a topological qubit -- a robust type of quantum bit that Microsoft believes will serve as the basis for a scalable, general purpose quantum computer system. The company also revealed the makings of an ecosystem of hardware and software to help developers explore the potential of topological quantum computing -- and a sign-up sheet for developers ready to explore the future of quantum computing.

The, to date, unnamed programming language for quantum computers that is integrated with Microsoft's Visual Studio development environment is designed to run on both a quantum simulator and quantum computer.

"For Microsoft to start writing a language that can make use of the quantum nature of the computer is smart. It kind of positions them as a leader. When this becomes more mass market, people will be trained using Microsoft's language," said Mark Horvath, an analyst specializing in secure application development at research outfit Gartner.

While Horvath believes quantum computers are years away from happening -- because the "physics isn't there yet" -- he envisions quantum computing as a service gaining traction over the next five years.

By creating a language for quantum computers, Microsoft is demonstrating that it actually, wants to be early at something, said Holger Mueller, principal analyst and VP at Constellation Research Inc. The ambitious move is aimed at strengthening Visual Studio's hold on the developer market (mainly an academic and R&D crowd) rather than ceding it to the open source folks and startups, he said.

Moreover, in the race to build the quantum computer of the future, Microsoft has taken a less-travelled and more challenging path by pursuing topological quantum computing, said Isaac Sacolick, a digital transformation expert and former CIO.

"Topological quantum computing is Microsoft's moonshot. Microsoft wants a piece of this [quantum] computing technology, but prefers not competing with the more practical approaches targeted by IBM and Google to make qubits," Sacolick, president of StarCIO and author of Driving Digital, said in an email.

Enterprise applications of quantum computing

Just how Microsoft's bet on topological quantum computing will pan out for it -- or the enterprise -- of course, is an open question. And probably a silly question, for now. The informative company feature that accompanied the announcement, quotes the mathematician Michael Freedman, whom Microsoft hired 20 years ago to pursue topological qubits, as still being driven by one motive: "At this point in the project, the only thing I care about is making the quantum computer work."

Indeed, quantum computing -- topological or otherwise -- is more of a research play at the moment, Holger concurred. But when this computing does come into commercial use? He said it will likely be the first computing architecture that enterprises will consume only through the cloud and never have an option to deploy it on premises.

Prepping for the future of quantum computing

Even if CIOs don't know how quantum computing works or will ever deploy it on premises, it's not too early for them to start getting their heads around it, said David Schatsky, managing director at New York-based consultancy firm Deloitte.

"A useful place to start thinking about applications of quantum is wherever high-performance computing is used," Schatsky said. "Big analytic workloads, for instance, will benefit from quantum computing and early applications will be in optimization problems found in disciplines ranging from logistics planning to financial portfolio optimization to risk management."

Topological quantum computing is Microsoft's moonshot. Microsoft wants a piece of this [quantum] computing technology, but prefers not competing with the more practical approaches targeted by IBM and Google to make qubits.
Isaac Sacolickpresident, StarCIO

 Considering the future of quantum computer, Gartner's Horvath raised the issue of IT security.

"As quantum computing gets going forward, existing algorithms will become more risky. One of the things that CIOs need to look at is how they're using encryption, how they're going to have to change that encryption in the future -- and when that future happens," Horvath said.

Post-quantum encryption is an area that gets CIOs excited -- or should, he said. With homomorphic encryptions -- which allow computations to be carried out on ciphertext -- one can do addition and multiplication on encrypted text and those will carry through even when it is decrypted, he explained. "This will allow you to mask data, but still run programs on it."

There is a good possibility that quantum computing could accelerate the process of training machine learning models, which would make them more accurate and much more useful and would also spur innovation by reducing the time to test new ideas, Deloitte's Schatsky reinforced.

Some things never change for CIOs. Just as there's a shortage of talent in the data analytics space right now, CIOs can expect a dearth of quantum computer programmers, Horvath forewarned. "The programming we have today is on a different mathematical formulation and you program differently on a quantum computer. There are not many people that can do that right now."

CIO news roundup for week of Sept. 25

The news of Microsoft creating a new programming language in preparation for the future of quantum computing hit the stands this week; here's what else made news:

Wal-Mart signs up for Facebook's Workplace. After testing Workplace by Facebook at its corporate office, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced plans to make the enterprise social networking tool available to its entire workforce. Dan Kneeshaw, Wal-Mart's senior director of digital strategy and brand management, told The Wall Street Journal that Workplace will help connect the company's 2.3 million employees across the globe. Company leaders are already using Workplace to communicate with associates using a live video feature, Kneeshaw said, while teams use the tool to share corporate news and manage projects. Workplace launched in 2015 as a pilot project, and in the last 10 months has been deployed by more than 14,000 companies across a wide range of industries, Facebook representatives said in a blog post this week.

Twitter discovers accounts linked to Russian election interference. Twitter announced this week that it had found more than 200 accounts linked to Russian interference in the 2016 election. In a blog post, company representatives said that 22 accounts were closed after they were found to be linked to separate Facebook pages shown to have spread Russian-bought ads during the 2016 presidential campaign. Twitter discovered an additional 179 Twitter accounts were related or linked to the Facebook pages, and "took action on the ones we found in violation of our rules," company representatives said in the blog post. In the coming months, Twitter will be rolling out several changes to the way it responds to suspicious activity. These changes include introducing new enforcements for suspicious logins, tweets, and engagements, and shortening the amount of time suspicious accounts remain visible while under review.

FCC chief asks Apple to stop disabling iPhones' FM chips. Citing public safety concerns after recent natural disasters, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has requested that Apple activate disabled FM radio chips within its iPhones. "When wireless networks go down during a natural disaster, smartphones with activated FM chips can allow Americans to get vital access to life-saving information," Pai said in a statement. In an emailed statement to Ars Technica, Apple representatives downplayed the need for FM radio broadcasts because their products already enable government-issued emergency notifications such as weather advisories and Amber Alerts. Apple representatives added that the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 models do not have FM radio chips in them "nor do they have antennas designed to support FM signals."

Senior site editor, Ben Colecontributed to this week's news roundup.

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