Microsoft Corp. this week unveiled cloud-based quantum-computing tools that companies can use to speed up calculations on classical computers, among other things.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, for example, recently used a Microsoft-developed quantum algorithm running on a classical machine to detect whether cancer treatments are working for a patient after one dose of chemotherapy. The algorithm helps improve MRI scanning techniques, meaning that changes can be seen within a week, rather than in six months with more traditional methods.

“That’s really important for both patient outcomes and quality of life, because if your chemotherapy isn’t working, you just poisoned your body for nothing,” Mark Griswold, Case Western Reserve professor of radiology and director of MRI research, said in a statement.

Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella on Monday introduced Azure Quantum at the company’s annual Ignite conference in Orlando, Fla. The new set of tools, which includes access to early-stage quantum-computing hardware, will be rolled out to early users in the coming months via Microsoft’s Azure cloud business. Prices haven’t been determined, the company said.

Microsoft Aims Quantum-Computing Effort at Developers
A screenshot of Microsoft's Azure Quantum. Photo: Microsoft

Mr. Nadella said in his keynote speech that the emerging technology could eventually be used to help tackle global problems related to food safety and climate change. “These are big challenges that need more computing,” he said.

By harnessing the properties of quantum physics, quantum computers have the potential to sort through a vast number of possibilities in nearly real time and come up with a probable solution. While traditional computers store information as either zeros or ones, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which represent and store information as both zeros and ones simultaneously.

No commercial-grade quantum computer has been built yet. IBM has offered customers access to early-stage quantum-computing machines over its cloud since 2016. Google last month announced a quantum-computing experiment that generated about 1 million random strings of numbers in roughly three minutes, a task the company said would have taken the world’s fastest conventional supercomputer 10,000 years.

Microsoft is developing its own quantum computer, which relies on a branch of mathematics called topology, but this isn’t accessible to the company’s clients.

Azure Quantum focuses mainly on preparing developers for the technology, providing them a sandbox to develop algorithms and applications for quantum computers without having to rewrite their code when the hardware and algorithms get more advanced. Developers can also experiment with quantum algorithms on traditional machines, as the Case Western project did.

“The real race here is for developer adoption,” said Matthew Brisse, research vice president and analyst at technology research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. “If you can get a developer accustomed to your platform and start developing solutions based on that platform, then the hardware will just follow.”

By 2023, a fifth of organizations, including businesses and governments, are expected to budget for quantum-computing projects, up from less than 1% in 2018, according to Gartner.

Through Azure Quantum, customers will have access to early-stage quantum-computing hardware from Honeywell International Inc., IonQ Inc. and Quantum Circuits Inc. Honeywell and IonQ are working to commercialize quantum computing using a method that involves light and small particles. Quantum Circuits, Google and IBM use another approach.

Azure customers will also have access to services from 1QB Information Technologies Inc., a venture-capital-backed startup that helps companies identify specific use cases for quantum computing and develops software programs that are crucial to their implementation.

The company, known as 1QBit, offers a way for software developers to experiment with quantum algorithms that operate on classical computers. “Quantum-inspired” algorithms are a useful midpoint between classical and quantum computing because they still speed up calculations, said Krysta Svore, general manager of quantum software at Microsoft.

Those algorithms could also be used to speed up calculations in chemistry, which is “one of the most exciting application areas for quantum computing,” Ms. Svore said.

Quantum computing could combat carbon-dioxide emissions by helping chemists design new materials and processes, said Landon Downs, president and co-founder of Vancouver, Canada-based 1QBit. “Presently we discover new materials by doing experiments in a lab, whereas with quantum computers we’ll design materials with specific properties,” he said in an email.

Write to Sara Castellanos at [email protected]

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