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Balanced Communication, Better Collaborations Needed to Ethically Navigate Quantum’s Transformative Potential

Tightrope walker, Amsterdam
Tightrope walker, Amsterdam

Insider Brief

  • A survey of leading quantum technology experts formed the foundation of a white paper that addresses facets of quantum computing ethics.
  • The team included researchers from Responsible Technology Institute (RTI) at the University of Oxford and Ernst & Young (EY).
  • They recommend a balanced approach to quantum computing, focusing on both its potential benefits and associated risks.

Researchers from Responsible Technology Institute (RTI) at the University of Oxford, in collaboration with Ernst & Young (EY), report that quantum technology researchers and entrepreneurs are facing a high-wire act balancing the ethical dimensions of quantum computing.

The team released a white paper — Towards Responsible Quantum Computing — that they hope provides a roadmap for ensuring the responsible development of quantum technologies.

The white paper emphasizes the need for a balanced approach to quantum computing, focusing on both its potential benefits and associated risks. The researchers found that a central need is to communicate about the capabilities and timelines of quantum technologies realistically and urge stakeholders to avoid the hype that often surrounds emerging technologies.

This measured approach can help set appropriate expectations for both the public and policymakers.

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Key Findings

The report highlights several critical areas:

Responsible Communication: As mentioned, there’s a pressing need for clear and accurate communication regarding the potential and limitations of quantum computing. Overhyping can lead to unrealistic expectations, while underplaying its risks can result in insufficient preparation for future challenges.

The team writes: “Although largely (22 of 38, 57.9%) agreeing or strongly agreeing that it may be useful to generate some excitement in society and communities about novel technologies, most respondents (84%) believed that claims made around such technologies were very often overblown or exaggerated in popular discourse. This suggests that counteracting ‘hype’ around such promises and engaging in responsible science communication may be a key element to consider amongst the expert community, with ‘right-sizing’ expectations being more critical than generating enthusiasm.”

Collaborative Innovation: The paper stresses the importance of collaboration across different industries, sectors and disciplines. No single entity, whether public or private, can drive quantum innovation alone. Such collaboration is seen as essential for building trust and ensuring balanced development.

Broader Risk Landscape: While much attention has been given to the cryptographic risks posed by quantum computing, the paper points out that this focus can overshadow other significant risks. One such risk is the potential for quantum technologies to exacerbate digital divides between nations, potentially leading to greater inequality.

Transformative Potential: Quantum computing has the power to dramatically alter various aspects of business and society. However, the exact nature of these changes depends on the steps taken today by those within the quantum ecosystem.

Recommendations for Action

The white paper offers several recommendations aimed at fostering a responsible quantum future:

Manage Expectations: It’s crucial to manage expectations regarding the timelines for achieving scalable quantum computing. This includes recognizing the ongoing engineering challenges and the uncertainty surrounding potential applications and their ethical implications.

Equitable Access: There should be a focus on ensuring equitable access to quantum computing resources, infrastructure and talent. This is seen as vital for fostering global collaboration and innovation.

The team writes: “As a global society, the world faces many collective grand challenges on climate change, dwindling resources, and the need for new materials, amongst others. As such, it may be in the best interests of humanity and the environment to
enable more equity of access to quantum talent and technology, given that quantum technologies stand to be a substantial differentiator in tackling some of these challenges.”

Competitive Nature: In an issue ultimately related to access, the team writes that competitive dynamics of the quantum field need to be addressed to prevent capacity issues and digital divides both within and between nations. A more nuanced approach to competition can help mitigate these risks.

Government Role: Governments have a key role in absorbing risk, building markets, shaping governance, and leveling the playing field. Their involvement is crucial for the responsible development of quantum technologies.

The researchers list a number of governmental roles for the development of quantum computing, among other emerging technologies. These roles include providing governance frameworks, offering both direct and indirect funding, and creating commercial opportunities. Additionally, governments can shape the political ecosystem, act as early customers, and prioritize national or regional initiatives. They can also set up tax incentives, create infrastructural support, and support long-term risks. Furthermore, governments influence educational programs and build cross-departmental understandings to foster technological advances.

Long-term Perspective: Developing quantum technology should be viewed as a long-term endeavor, akin to a marathon rather than a sprint. Treating it as a race could hinder overall progress and lead to suboptimal outcomes.

But Act Now: The paper advocates for collective action by stakeholders from different sectors and disciplines. This collaboration is necessary to lay the groundwork for a responsible quantum future grounded in human-centered values. According to Mira Pijselman, Digital Ethics Lead at EY, and colleagues, the time to act is now.

The Survey

The insights in the white paper are drawn from an expert survey conducted in 2023, the team reports. This survey included input from technologists, researchers, and policymakers from both academia and industry. The survey employed a mixed-methods approach, combining quantitative and qualitative questions to leverage participants’ expert knowledge. A Likert scale gauged responses to statements such as “The government should be involved in funding the development of new technologies,” with participants also invited to provide additional comments.

The researchers enriched the quantitative data with deeper insights. The survey received 38 expert responses, with 14 from industry, 19 from academia, and 5 from other sectors, and over 84% of respondents answered every question.

This is a summary of the key points — according to the author — but the white paper adds considerable depth to this important conversation. Please see the paper here for a deeper dive.

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. [email protected]

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