Microsoft reports a Majorana development in quantum quest

Cindy F. Cape
Postdoctoral researcher Xiaojing Zhao works in Microsoft’s Quantum Materials Lab, where an important milestone towards creating a topological qubit and scalable quantum computer has been demonstrated. (Photo by John Brecher for Microsoft)

Microsoft says its researchers have found evidence of an exotic phenomenon that’s key to its plans to build general-purpose quantum computers.

The phenomenon, known as a Majorana zero mode, is expected to smooth the path for topological quantum computing — the technological approach that’s favored by Microsoft’s Azure Quantum program.

Quantum computing is a weird enough concept by itself: In contrast with the rigid one-or-zero world of classical computing, quantum computing juggles quantum bits, or qubits, that can represent ones and zeroes simultaneously until the results are read out.

Scientists say the quantum approach can solve certain types of problems — for example, network optimization or simulations of molecular interactions — far more quickly than the classical approach. Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services and other cloud-based services are already using hybrid systems to bring some of the benefits of the quantum approach to applications ranging from drug development to traffic management.

At the same time, Microsoft and other companies are trying to build the hardware and software for “full-stack” quantum computing systems that can take on a far wider range of applications. Microsoft has chosen a particularly exotic technological strategy, which involves inducing quantum states on topological superconducting wires. To keep those quantum states stable, the wires would host Majorana zero modes localized at each end.

Majorana zero modes have been a topic of theoretical interest since 1937, but for decades, they remained exclusively in the realm of theory. In 2018, a team of researchers reported that they had created the phenomenon, only to retract their claims three years later. Other claims have met with controversy as well, casting doubt on the prospects for topological quantum computing.

Last year, an analysis of data from Azure Quantum’s experimental quantum devices found signatures suggesting that Majorana zero modes were present at both ends of a precisely tuned nanowire. Other signatures in the electrical conductance data pointed to the opening and closing of what’s known as a topological gap — another telltale sign pointing to a successful detection.

“It was suddenly wow,” Roman Lutchyn, a Microsoft partner research manager with expertise in quantum simulation, said in a Microsoft report on the Majorana research. “We looked at the data, and this was it.”

Zulfi Alam, a corporate vice president who heads Microsoft’s quantum computing effort, said the hardware team has invited an external council of experts to review and validate the findings.

Even if the results are validated, it will take lots more research to create topological qubits and assemble a quantum computer that’s ready for prime time. But at least Microsoft’s researchers will have added confidence that they’re on the right track.

“What’s amazing is humans have been able to engineer a system to demonstrate one of the most exotic pieces of physics in the universe,” said Microsoft engineer Krysta Svore, who leads the company’s quantum software development program. “And we expect to capitalize on this to do the almost unthinkable — to push toward a fault-tolerant quantum machine that will enable computation on an entirely new level that’s closer to the way nature operates.”

Researchers discussed their findings this month during a meeting organized by Microsoft’s Station Q in Santa Barbara, Calif. For further details, check out the latest installment of Microsoft’s Innovation Stories and today’s posting on the Microsoft Research Blog.

Correction for 12:30 p.m. March 17: An earlier version of this report misspelled Roman Lutchyn’s name.

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