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Traffic in Seattle. Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

Ford and Microsoft have figured out how to leverage quantum computing — the powerful but not yet commercialized technology — to tackle traffic in Seattle.

Why it matters: By running quantum-inspired algorithms on conventional computer hardware, companies can process more data, giving them a head start on solving complex problems like how to direct thousands of vehicles simultaneously to smooth traffic flow.

  • "We don’t have to wait until quantum computers are deployed at large scale," Ben Porter, director of business development for quantum computing at Microsoft, tells Axios.

The big picture: Imagine a family trying to get ready for work and school with similar departure times, Ken Washington, Ford's chief technology officer, writes in a new blog post.

  • "If an individual day-planning app gave each person the quickest way to get going, there likely would be a bottleneck at the bathroom. Now scale that to a family of thousands…"
  • Just as families stagger bathroom time, traffic routing software could consider all the various route requests from drivers, then optimize route suggestions to minimize the number of cars sharing the road at the same time.

Today's computers can't calculate all the possible route variations fast enough, which is where quantum computing can help, Washington writes.

  • While modern computers translate information into bits — either a 1 or a 0 —
    a quantum computer can translate information into a 1, 0, and somewhere in between, meaning a lot more information can be stored and processed on a single quantum bit.
  • Yes, but: Quantum technology is fickle and still inching from theory to practice.

Microsoft has developed a method to emulate quantum behavior on traditional computers and started working with Ford in 2018 to see how the simulated approach could help tackle real world problems today.

How it works:

  • In one scenario, 5,000 vehicles — each with 10 possible routes — requested directions across Metro Seattle simultaneously.
  • In 20 seconds, balanced routing suggestions were delivered to all 5,000 vehicles.
  • The result: total congestion improved by 73% and average commuting time dropped 8% when compared to routing each car individually, in a vacuum.

What to watch: The companies will continue to try to refine their simulated approach with the goal of using quantum computing to solve intractable problems like optimizing manufacturing processes or improving batteries for electric vehicles.

Go deeper: A surprising quantum frontrunner

Go deeper

Biden threatens new sanctions against Ethiopian officials over Tigray conflict

Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

President Biden on Friday signed an executive order allowing the Treasury and State Departments to impose sanctions against Ethiopian officials "responsible for, or complicit in, prolonging the conflict" in the Tigray region.

Driving the news: Hundreds of thousands of people are facing famine conditions in Tigray, but less than 10 percent of the needed humanitarian supplies has reached the region over the last month "due to the obstruction of aid access" by the Ethiopian government, according to Biden administration officials.

Top general: Calls to China were "perfectly within the duties" of job

Gen. Mark Milley. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley told the Associated Press on Friday that calls with his Chinese counterpart during the final months of Donald Trump's presidency were "perfectly within the duties and responsibilities" of his job.

Why it matters: In his first public comments on the calls that have prompted critics to question whether the general went too far, Milley maintained that such conversations are "routine," per AP.

The consumer's massive "war chest"

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Economists expect the pace of economic growth to cool off now that government transfer payments like stimulus checks and emergency unemployment benefits are in the rearview mirror. But evidence suggests that the U.S. consumer is sitting on a lot of financial firepower that could be a key driver of growth in the quarters to come.

Why it matters: U.S. consumer spending is massive, representing about 70% of GDP.