Microsoft researcher dials back quantum computing claims

15 Feb 2021

Image: © James Thew/Stock.adobe.com

Other researchers in the field flagged doubts over errors in the data, while Nature tacked an ‘editorial expression of concern’ to the paper.

A Microsoft researcher has revised a paper on quantum computing due to “technical errors”, in a blow to the company’s quantum efforts.

In 2018, Leo Kouwenhoven, a physicist working for Microsoft, published a paper claiming that he and his co-authors had observed a particle called a Majorana fermion, which could be used to develop a quantum computer.

However, Wired reports that the authors have now published a new paper correcting errors in the 2018 paper that was published in Nature. The authors added that a retraction note is being prepared for Nature, which will include a “detailed description of errors and the corrected data analyses”.

In the race to develop a commercial quantum computer, the researchers believed that utilising the Majorana fermion would give Microsoft a shot in the arm against IBM and Google. The particle, they said, could be used to create much more stable qubits, the basic units of quantum information.

Three years on from the supposed breakthrough, the authors have now said that there were “technical errors” in their findings. Additional data on the research provided by Kouwenhoven and his colleagues has cast doubts on the validity of the claims made in 2018.

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Sergey Frolov of the University of Pittsburgh said that the researchers omitted some contradictory data in the original paper. “From the fuller data, there’s no doubt that there’s no Majorana,” he told Wired. Frolov, who had questioned the 2018 paper, recently outlined some of his critiques on Twitter.

Kouwenhoven was hired by Microsoft in 2016 to help advance the tech giant’s quantum efforts, following his work at Delft Technical University trying to discover harder evidence of the Majorana particle.

The 2018 research is now under further review and Delft Technical University said it is investigating the research. Nature added an “editorial expression of concern” to the paper last year after the authors alerted the journal to “potential problems” in the way the data was processed. Nature said that it is engaging with the authors on resolving the concerns.

In a statement to Wired, Microsoft and Kouwenhoven declined to comment in detail. “We are confident that scaled quantum computing will help solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges, and we remain committed to our investments in quantum computing,” Kouwenhoven said.

For Microsoft, the episode is a setback in the quantum computing race. Rival IBM recently announced advancements in its Qiskit framework for quantum computing that will see tasks completed in hours that would normally take months.

It’s not just companies in the race, with governments also pumping money into research. The UK set up the National Quantum Technologies Programme, which surpassed £1bn in government and industry funding in 2019. In 2018, the EU launched the Quantum Technologies Flagship, a 10-year €1bn programme to support quantum computing development in Europe.

Jonathan Keane is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Dublin

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