Microsoft may be known for Windows, its Office suite, and — lately — the Xbox and Surface.

Some day, it might be known for supporting breakthroughs in particle physics and for helping pioneer quantum computers.

Microsoft’s “Station Q” research group, set up in 2006 on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has been pursuing an unusual line in quantum computing research, called “topological quantum computing.” The New York Times reports on a research symposium that presented some of the results of that research last weekend in Santa Barbara:

In the approach that Microsoft is pursuing, which is described as “topological quantum computing,” precisely controlling the motions of pairs of subatomic particles as they wind around one another would manipulate entangled quantum bits. Although the process of braiding particles takes place at subatomic scales, it is evocative of the motions of a weaver overlapping threads to create a pattern.

These subatomic particles that Microsoft and its UCSB research group is trying to “braid” are known as “anyons,” a type of particle that only exists in two dimensions.

Station Q’s research team looks like a crew of serious intellectual heavyweights, focusing on theoretical physics, computational physics, condensed matter theory, and quantum topology, among other difficult-to-master subjects.

Microsoft is also contributing heavily to physics research groups that are trying to find subatomic particles known as “Majorana fermions,” which have shown up in theories but, so far, not in the lab. These particles might be useful, researchers think, in making “qubits,” the quantum bits that would make up a quantum computer.

Majorana fermions also might be what makes up “dark matter,” the mysterious stuff that seems to exist throughout the universe but has so far escaped direct detection.

Whereas classical digital computers use electronic bits that can only exist in one of two states — a 1 or a 0 — qubits have more fuzzy properties, allowing them to exist in both states — and they do so in a state of quantum entanglement with other qubits in the same computer. That, in theory, can make for a type of computer that’s very good at solving problems digital computers aren’t so good at.

Companies, such as D-Wave systems, have succeeded in building small qubit-based computers. But the qubits are delicate, and have not proven particularly successful at solving computational problems — yet.

But the research goes on, because scientists think that quantum computers will be especially powerful at solving complex combinatorial problems — such as encrypting and decrypting messages.

The Redmond, Washington company has long maintained one of the most well-funded and ambitious R&D programs of any tech company, spending more than $10 billion annually on new product development as well as fundamental research.

“They have really done something very special,” Charles M. Marcus, a physicist at the University of Copenhagen, said to the Times, referring both to Microsoft’s financial investment in quantum computing, but also its involvement in the community of researchers.

“It’s hard to find things that you could say, I know that’s a 20-year problem and would be worth doing,” Microsoft executive Craig Mundie told the Times. Mundie, the company’s former chief research and strategy officer and a current special adviser to CEO Satya Nadella, is the executive who got Microsoft involved in this research. “But this one struck me as being in that category.”

More information:

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