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In 2012, physicists in the Netherlands announced a discovery in particle physics that started chatter about a Nobel Prize. Inside a tiny rod of semiconductor crystal chilled cooler than outer space, they had caught the first glimpse of a strange particle called the Majorana fermion, finally confirming a prediction made in 1937. It was an advance seemingly unrelated to the challenges of selling office productivity software or competing with Amazon in cloud computing, but Craig Mundie, then heading Microsoft’s technology and research strategy, was delighted. The abstruse discovery—partly underwritten by Microsoft—was crucial to a project at the company aimed at making it possible to build immensely powerful computers that crunch data using quantum physics. “It was a pivotal moment,” says Mundie. “This research was guiding us toward a way of realizing one of these systems.”

Microsoft is now almost a decade into that project and has just begun to talk publicly about it. If it succeeds, the world could change dramatically. Since the physicist Richard Feynman first suggested the idea of a quantum computer in 1982, theorists have proved that such a machine could solve problems that would take the fastest conventional computers hundreds of millions of years or longer. Quantum computers might, for example, give researchers better tools to design novel medicines or super-efficient solar cells. They could revolutionize artificial intelligence.

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