March 11, 2021

Controversial Microsoft-backed quantum computing research is withdrawn

By Eric Johansson

A Microsoft-backed scientific research team has been forced to retract claims made in a controversial quantum computing paper published in 2018.

The paper, which was published in heavyweight science journal Nature, claimed to show evidence for the existence of sub-atomic “Majorana” particles. Italian physicist Ettore Majorana first theorised that such particles might exist in the 1930s. If they are a reality, they could make quantum computing much more feasible.

The Netherlands-based researchers have now formally retracted the paper, saying that they had been made aware of “several inconsistencies” in their research that changed the end results once corrected.

Quantum computing has been a tech industry goal for decades. According to a February 2021 report from GlobalData Thematic Research, leaders in quantum hardware research include IBM, Microsoft, Google, Honeywell, PsiQuantum and Alibaba. The report adds that Raytheon, NEC, Nokia and QuTech are challengers in the field.

Majorana particles, if found to be a reality, might have put Microsoft conclusively ahead.

If they could be built, quantum computers would offer potentially enormous amounts of compute power. Such machines would use so-called quantum bits, or qubits. While the bits used in today’s computers have a value of one or zero, qubits could have both or either of those values at the same time.

One effect of at-scale quantum computing would be the ability to break almost all commonly used current encryption, with enormous knock-on consequences.

But the GlobalData analysts assess that the quest for quantum may take a long time yet. They write:

Quantum computers are proving extremely difficult to build, and fully-fledged commercial computers are not expected for 10, 20, or even 30 years.

However the report adds that significant changes can be expected in some sectors in the mid term:

Within the next five to seven years, intermediate quantum computers are likely to become available that can offer a quantum advantage over classical computers in certain optimization applications across, for example, space warfare, logistics, drug discovery, and options trading.

According to Cyrus Mewawalla, Head of Thematic Research at GlobalData:

‚ÄúComparisons are often drawn between quantum computing and nuclear fusion. Both are seen as technologies that are always 20 years away. Yet, as investments and collaborations demonstrate, companies do see quantum computing delivering value this decade and want to position themselves to take advantage of this.”

Practical applications of Majorana particles might have significantly accelerated this timeline. But many scientists viewed the 2018 paper with caution as soon as it was published, and it was always controversial.

Then, earlier this year, academics at the University of Pittsburgh who had received additional data from the researchers started to question the paper even more, saying that data that would have cast doubt over its findings had been withheld, according to Wired magazine.

It was upon reviewing these warnings that the Dutch researchers acknowledged that they had made two mistakes: the team had “unnecessarily corrected” some of the data and had failed to make these corrections clear, and had mislabelled a graph in a misleading way.

The quest for quantum computing goes on.

Read more: Cambridge Quantum Computing joins IBM Q Network