Quantum Ethics Series: Understanding the Issues and Expanding the Conversation

quantum ethics
quantum ethics

Quantum Ethics Series: Understanding the Issues and Expanding the Conversation

quantum ethics
To expand the conversation, The Quantum Daily will offer insights from quantum experts to expand the conversation about quantum ethics.

Ethics, all too often, takes a reactive backseat in the face of waves of new industrial and technological change. We often consider the effects of new technologies after they have already been adopted and after we’ve seen the problems these new technologies have created. Members of the quantum technology community have the historic opportunity to advance ethical considerations along with the development of the technology itself to bring about a safe and fair quantum era. To facilitate this conversation, The Quantum Daily will offer a regular series of articles and multimedia content about ethical issues facing the quantum technology industry and ask that ethicists, philosophers, quantum enthusiasts and experts help us not just understand those ethical challenges — but help us design some proactive, solutions-based efforts to develop quantum technologies that benefit the most people.

Nobody likes change — and that’s what new technologies do: produce change. We can predict, then, that if quantum technology realizes just a fraction of its potential, it may produce change of historic proportions. As with other technological upheavals, we can expect that people will respond to those changes in fairly common ways, from adoption to avoidance and from acceptance to defiance. If we also use the past as a guide, most societies are completely caught off guard by both the change — and those responses to change. A look at the failure to fully grasp the upheaval of the Internet and social media just a few decades ago should serve as a reminder.

For those in the quantum community, now is the time to begin to understand how technologies may impact our lives and our society, how we can manage that change and how we can steer the effects of that change to produce overall beneficial outcomes.

Here are a few — perhaps a tip of an iceberg few — ethical challenges facing the quantum computing community. 

“It’s early days for the quantum industry. That provides a rare opportunity to embed inclusive practices from the start and build a responsible and sustainable roadmap for quantum computing.”

Democratizing Quantum
One of the problems of quantum technology isn’t so much that it will produce change — it will — but that only certain groups of people will be in a position to capitalize on this impending change. It’s further possible, as seen in current debates surrounding AI and data science, that with technological knowledge comes not just power, but a centralization of power. And with this centralization of power, we would expect a centralization of wealth in a world where income equity is already a problem.

If quantum replaces classical, the trend could continue and, because quantum programming is nearly mystifying compared to classical logic, quantum technology could be held in the hands of even fewer quantum-tech savvy adopters and programmers, which, then, may drive an even deeper wedge between the quantum haves and have nots.

Solutions that can create quantum technology that benefits the most people and builds a quantum industry that’s inclusive and diverse range from awareness to design.

Shohini Ghose, quantum physicist and professor of physics and computer science at Wilfrid Laurier University, writes in the Harvard Business Review that careful planning now is the key to these solutions.

“Who will develop and have access to quantum technology, and how will users engage with it? The impact of AI and blockchain has demonstrated the need to consider the social, ethical, and environmental implications of new technologies. It’s early days for the quantum industry. That provides a rare opportunity to embed inclusive practices from the start and build a responsible and sustainable roadmap for quantum computing.”

Privacy and Security
For ethicists, quantum computing wields a double-edge sword for privacy and security concerns. Quantum technology can present nearly uncrackable codes and nearly unhackable networks. On the other hand, the power of quantum computing may progress to a point that it can easily solve cryptographic techniques that are used to secure private data and financial transactions.

Cryptocurrency advocates also worry that a hacker with a quantum computer could render the multibillion-dollar blockchain industry obsolete.

Technology, ethicists and cybersecurity officials must work together to find innovative solutions that ensure that quantum provides the best security while minimizing its ability to damage privacy.

Quantum AI
Technology experts and policy makers alike have struggled with the ethical dilemmas surrounding artificial intelligence and machine learning. AI and ML can only be as smart and as fair as its programs and its programmers. The technology industry has had to deal with AI programs that threatened privacy and programs that has racial and gender biased. While quantum AI is only in its beginning stages, theoretically it will be considerably more powerful than its classically trained cousin.

If so, its power to help and hurt will be compounded. While the technology industry, by most accounts, was caught flatfooted in its approach to the ethical challenges of AI, the quantum industry can’t afford to be — the stakes are considerably higher.  

The Hype-Fear-Disappointment Cycle
In the last few years, quantum technology has advanced rapidly. This advance, coupled with the often bizarre, definitely counterintuitive nature of quantum mechanics, has led to breathless reporting in the media of each new finding and each new product launch.

For those in the quantum industry, this is both an opportunity and a challenge. In the short term at least, quantum entrepreneurs and industry stalwarts can easily spread the word about new products and investment announcements. However, experts warn not to push quantum into the top perch on the peak of the Gartner’s hype cycle. If so, the trough of disillusionment could be crippling. Disillusioned investors might pull back from the industry. And, experts question: How much will a disillusioned public pull back their support of quantum research?

The general public will not all meet overhyped news of quantum breakthroughs with open, welcoming arms. In fact, the very hope that these reports are meant to inspire may create fear and possibly resentment among the public. Spectres of quantum-driven hacking and spooky quantum AI robots may haunt the mass consciousness, and the very premise of quantum mechanics may cause philosophical and even religious backlashes.

Ethically, quantum entrepreneurs must learn to balance promoting their research and their innovations in a competitive landscape while setting realistic expectations to avoid triggering fears and biases.

Those are some of the main issues on quantum ethics. In the future, we will offer insights from quantum experts on these issues, as we deepen the conversation and create a framework to better understand, manage, mitigate and optimize how quantum technology will integrate with our lives and society.

Matt Swayne

Matt Swayne

With a several-decades long background in journalism and communications, Matt Swayne has worked as a science communicator for an R1 university for more than 12 years, specializing in translating high tech and deep tech for the general audience. He has served as a writer, editor and analyst at The Quantum Insider since its inception. In addition to his service as a science communicator, Matt also develops courses to improve the media and communications skills of scientists and has taught courses. matt@thequantuminsider.com

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