With Q#, Microsoft is throwing programmers the keys to quantum

Microsoft

Computers are about to get weird.

After decades as theory, the first quantum computers now sit in a select few labs across the globe. They’re rudimentary, and arguably less practical than early electronic computers like the 50-ton ENIAC. Yet researchers are making headway. IBM, Google, and Intel are making progress on quantum hardware, and a practical quantum computer finally feels like a near-future reality instead of a subject for science fiction.

That’s an opportunity. It’s also a problem. Quantum physics is a weird realm of teleportation and probability that doesn’t follow the rules we’re familiar with. Most people don’t understand quantum mechanics, and that includes programmers, the people who will need to put quantum computers to practical use.

Microsoft has a plan to educate them.

Making the mystery approachable

Any developer looking to learn a new programming language, like C# or Javascript, wants to make immediate use of her lessons. Yet quantum computing’s infancy can make that difficult. Creating a program for many quantum devices is a lot like trying to write in binary machine code – except even more difficult, because quantum mechanics. This isn’t just a field that’s well understood but hard to translate. It’s an area of study where some fundamentals remain unknown.

Matt Smith/Digital Trends

That includes the reason why quantum computers work. “What we have in quantum computing is proof points that quantum computers can outperform classical computers,” said Krysta Svore, Principle Research Manager at Microsoft’s Quantum Architectures and Computation group. “The Holy Grail in our field would be an actual mathematical proof of that.”

Quantum computing is so new, and so unlike anything before it, that even top researchers remain in the dark about important and fundamental elements.

Teaching programmers to code for quantum on real hardware is out of the question for now. Microsoft’s quantum programming language, Q#, side-steps that problem by offering simple access to the tools needed to begin programming. That means making Q# as familiar and approachable as possible, even while scientists continue to make breakthroughs in the fundamentals of how quantum computers work.

Q# isn’t tucked away behind a wall of terrible documentation and poorly explained installers. Programmers can access it through Visual Studio, the world’s most popular development environment. And programmers don’t need access to a quantum computer to use it.

Instead, they can program as if their code would run on an actual quantum device but then run it on a virtual simulation. That’s possible because the quantum computer isn’t treated as its own complete, independent system, but instead as an accelerator that’s called on by a classical computer running classical computer code.

“We envision the quantum computer being another resource in Azure, next to say the GPU, the FPGA, the ASIC, to use. Azure becomes this whole fabric that includes in its compute, a quantum computer,” Svore told Digital Trends.

Most programmers are familiar using purpose-built hardware for specific tasks, and most are familiar calling on resources in the cloud. Firing up Q# isn’t different from those well-known tasks. Quantum hardware might be exotic and rare, but the programming environment Microsoft offers for Q# is exactly what you’d see today if you looked over the shoulder of a programmer at most Fortune 500 companies. That makes it far less intimidating.

“The ultimate vision is that the user isn’t saying ‘Ok, now I need to take this app and run it on this part on the CPU, this part here, this part there,’” said Svore. “It’s the same with quantum computing. We want the accelerator to be seamless.”

A quantum community

Programmers can introduce themselves to Q# through a set of free tutorials that Microsoft calls Quantum Katas. Each lesson involves “a sequence of tasks on a certain quantum computing topic” that programmers are challenged to solve. Finding the correct solution is the goal, but the journey is just as important. The katas aren’t meant to be solved in a single pass. They teach through trial-and-error, introducing programmers to the basics of quantum programming along the way.

Q# and the Quantum Katas bring a transformative level of feedback to quantum programming

Chris Granade, a Research Software Development Engineer at Microsoft, saw them for himself while attending a tutorial session hosted by the University of Technology Sydney. “It was really amazing to watch that people could go from zero knowledge in quantum, to writing it,” he told Digital Trends. “What was transformative, was that when people had a misunderstanding, they didn’t suffer with it. They could run the katas, they could see the got the wrong answer, and that feedback really got people to understand in a hands-on way.”

That hands-on experience immediately transforms quantum computing from a theoretical concept to a practical reality, which makes all the difference in how people approach it. Programmers may not make physical objects, but they’re used to seeing feedback just like any other craftsperson. They create a thing and it works – or it doesn’t. Q# and the Quantum Katas bring that level of feedback to quantum programming, giving anyone interested a chance to dig in and understand what quantum computing makes possible.

The change Granade saw in person isn’t just happening in classrooms. The Quantum Development Kit, of which Q# is a part, can be downloaded by anyone under an open-source license. Interested developers can not only begin to use it, but actively contribute to the community. Svore told Digital Trends that QDK downloads number in “the upper tens of thousands,” and participants have already added “a handful of substantial contributions,” including new algorithms and documentation.

While still a niche, this Quantum Development Kit places the bar of entry low enough that even a novice programmer can begin to experiment with Q# and, in doing so, begin to understand what makes quantum computing tick. That’s helpful not just for programmers, but for the entire field of quantum physics. Explaining quantum theories is a major headache not only because the quantum world is strange compared to the “classical” physics most programmers know, but also because the practical implications of quantum physics can be difficult to demonstrate.

“You don’t need to know the physics. You don’t need to know the quantum mechanics.”

Classical computers deal with binary absolutes. 1s and 0s. Off or on. Quantum deals with probabilities, and programming for quantum means creating algorithms that manipulate probabilities to produce the correct solution. “You know this wave includes my solution. These other waves include not a solution. So, I want those waves, when they interfere, to go away,” Svore explained. “And I want the wave that includes my solution to get really big. At the end, we measure the quantum states. The probability of getting the high wave out is more likely the higher that wave is. That’s how we design quantum algorithms.”

Do you understand what Svore means?

If not, don’t feel bad. It’s not easy to grasp, and it’s not easy to demonstrate. Even thought experiments meant to simplify quantum mechanics, like Schrodinger’s famous cat, can leave you scratching your head.

Microsoft

Microsoft hopes that Q#, and the Quantum Katas, will offer a hands-on alternative for approaching the subject. “You don’t need to know the physics. You don’t need to know the quantum mechanics. In fact, I’ll admit I didn’t take quantum mechanics until graduate school,” said Svore. “I entered quantum computing without ever taking physics in college. I’m a computer scientist by training.”

Quantum programming could become a window of insight by giving programmers a chance to make practical use of quantum theories without ditching the tools they’ve come to rely on. There’s no need to spend years learning physics. Just jump in, make an application that uses Q#, and see what happens.

Preparing for tomorrow

Today’s practical use of Q# is limited because there’s no hardware to call on. Microsoft hasn’t built a quantum computer yet, and even if it had, it would be too primitive to perform useful calculations. But a programmer can check their work by running Q# on a simulated quantum computer. That makes it possible to code a program for quantum with a reasonable expectation that, once the hardware is available, it will work.

Krysta Svore, Principle Research Manager at Microsoft’s Quantum Architectures and Computation group (left) and Chris Granade, a Research Software Development Engineer at Microsoft. Matt Smith/Digital Trends

That’s crucial. Quantum computers are not merely a better modern-day PC. They’re fundamentally different. They require different hardware, different algorithms, and a different approach to solving complex problems. Even if a time traveler appeared with a functional, stable, million-qubit quantum computer, we’d have trouble putting it to use, just as Roman scholars would be perplexed if handed a laptop. 99.9 percent of modern developers, programmers, and computer scientists have zero experience coding for quantum, and no clue how quantum physics work. The basics must be introduced before more impressive discoveries can be made.

Teaching that will take time – but Microsoft’s Q# is an important step forward.

Product Review

The powerhouse Alienware 17 R5 will leave your desktop in the dust

With a 17-inch display and a chassis weighing in at nearly 10 pounds, the Alienware 17 R5 is truly massive. Between its weight and its hardware, it’s certainly outfitted like a gaming desktop so let’s find out if it performs like one.
Gaming

These are the best Xbox One games out right now

More than four years into its lifespan, Microsoft's latest console is finally coming into its own. From 'Cuphead' to 'Halo 5,' the best Xbox One games offer something for everyone.
Emerging Tech

An A.I. is designing retro video games — and they’re surprisingly good

Researchers from Georgia Tech have demonstrated how artificial intelligence can be used to create brand-new video games after being shown hours of classic 8-bit gaming action for inspiration.
Photography

Not just for photographers anymore, Loupedeck+ now supports Adobe Premiere Pro

Video editors can now get physical with the Loupedeck+ control board. Originally for Lightroom, a software update allows the controls to adapt to video editing, including color grading, clip trimming, and navigating through the timeline.
Emerging Tech

Don’t be fooled — this automated system sneakily manipulates video content

In the vein of “deep fakes," Recycle-GAN, a new system from Carnegie Mellon University, presents another case for how difficult it will be to distinguish fiction from reality in the future.
Computing

Edit, sign, append, and save with 12 of the best PDF editors

There are plenty of PDF editors to be had online, and though the selection is robust, finding a solid solution with the tools you need can be tough. Here, we've rounded up best PDF editors, so you can edit no matter your budget or OS.
Product Review

The HP Chromebook x2 takes Chrome to the next level

HP’s Chromebook x2 acts a lot like Microsoft’s Surface Book 2, with a well-equipped tablet that plugs into a keyboard base that’s heavy enough to keep the combination mostly stable. Is this premium Chromebook the best one you can buy?
Computing

Pain in the wrists? Type in comfort with one of these great ergonomic keyboards

Long typing sessions can leave anyone's wrists aching, but if you have one of the best ergonomic keyboards, that doesn't have to be the case. Our list of favorites will support good typing posture while being comfortable to use.
Gaming

Dive head first into the best experiences available now on the Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift brought back virtual reality and put a modern twist to it. Grab your Touch Controllers, put on your VR headset, and jump into the fun with some of the best Oculus Rift games available now.
Computing

Ripple cryptocurrency jumps 70 percent in 24 hours after news of bank deal

The Ripple cryptocurrency has seen its value reach the highest point since late 2017 after a tease from a Ripple Labs regulator suggested it could soon be adopted by banks for international money transfers.
Computing

Google tells lawmakers it allows other apps access to your Gmail

Google admitted to lawmakers in a letter that its privacy policy allows third-party apps access to the email messages of its 1.4 billion Gmail users. Google says the apps need the consent of users before access is granted.
Computing

From beautiful to downright weird, check out these great dual monitor wallpapers

Multitasking with two monitors doesn't necessarily mean you need to split your screens with two separate wallpapers. From beautiful to downright weird, here are our top sites for finding the best dual monitor wallpapers for you.
Computing

Gaming on a laptop has never been better. These are your best options

Gaming desktops are powerful, but they tie you down to your desk. For those of us who prefer a more mobile experience, here are the best gaming laptops on the market, ranging from budget machines to maxed-out, wallet-emptying PCs.
Computing

Tired of paying for shipping? Here's how to set up an Amazon Prime account

Want to know how to sign up for Amazon Prime? It's easier than you might think and even comes with a free trial so that you can enjoy all of its benefits for 30 days risk-free. Just follow these steps.