The Quantum Comprehension Gap and the Emergence of Quantum Ethics

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Though years from potential fruition, quantum computing and its control has emerged as an issue among technology ethicists. But if a YouTube video released last week voicing the concerns of six quantum experts is any indication, the level of discourse is at an early and amorphous stage, with only vague notions of solutions.

This is not to belittle the good work of Matt Swayne, an editor at Quantum Daily who co-produced the video with publisher Evan Kubes. To be fair, the video is intended for a general, not technical, audience, and Swayne and Kubes raise critical issues that individual technologists, their companies, their countries and governing bodies will need to come to grips with. It’s just to say that quantum ethics, like the technology itself, is at an early stage, and that the thinking, talking and actions taken on quantum ethics will have to progress far and fast if it is to be effective.

The thought of what quantum may someday be able to do, that it could dust today’s HPC and supercomputing, is staggering. Altering the human genome, designing super (and super-expensive) drugs, developing new military weapons, along with espionage and law enforcement techniques – all of these and more have major implications not only for the technology but for the existing gaps between rich and poor people and countries, between normally intelligent and the abnormally intelligent technological elite, gaps that quantum could widen.

As Faye Wattleton, co-founder , EeroQ Quantum Hardware, said in the video, “I think it’s in a moment for us to pause, and cause us to take a step back to say, ‘Wait a minute, if we can do in a few minutes what it would take 10,000 years to do with our current technology, well, that really requires some careful consideration.’”

“If we think about what it can do for good, of course, (many) industries – farmer, molecular simulation, creating new materials – that’s wonderful,” said Dr. Ilana Wisby, CEO, Oxford Quantum Circuits. “But of course, it could also be used to create new materials for purposes that aren’t so wonderful. We start to see and understand why governments, for example, are interested from even a material science perspective. And, of course, the infamous one is Shor’s Algorithm and the understanding that quantum computing could one day, likely, break encryption… What we have to understand and address now is: Is it worth the risk? Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.”

The point regarding the gap in quantum comprehension is not raised in the video, but there already is a major divide between those doing quantum R&D over against the vast majority of technologists, never mind the public at large, for whom quantum will remain an utter blank, a non-starter, beginning with the head splitting concept that a qubit can be a 0 and a 1 at the same time (though, we admit, the more often we hear it repeated the less it worries us). As Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” (It may have been Feynman who also said, “You don’t understand quantum mechanics, you just go with it.”)

Dr. Ilana Wisby, CEO, Oxford Quantum Circuits

The comprehension gap only adds to the complexities of quantum ethics when we consider that those who will apply the ethics in the form of legislation – i.e., politicians – won’t understand the technology at all. Collision of the tech-political worlds was put on display last summer during  Congressional hearings on Big Tech in which members of Congress asked elementary and transparently uninformed questions that the Big Tech company executives struggled mightily to answer without condescension – and that was about social media, a technology every politician uses (one media wag said the hearings at times seemed more like an extended Facebook help session).

There’s a truism that when it comes to business, politicians first do too little, then too much. This could pose a problem for FAANG and other companies pursuing quantum that are accustomed to asking for forgiveness, not permission, from local, state and federal governments and regulators.

Perhaps companies in the quantum sector should look for guidance from Germany’s approach to governance of autonomous vehicles. Led by the country’s transportation minister, an ethics commission was assembled and deliberated on the matter with religious, intellectual and other societal leaders, along with technologists and car makers. The commission’s 2017 report recommended that all AVs let humans take control, that if an accident occurs in which the car is in control then the automaker is liable, that AVs can’t be programmed demographically (such as deciding that an elderly person should die before a baby), and other matters. If these ethical constraints make it harder to produce AVs then so be it – ethics before technology seemed to be the commission’s overriding priority.**

Ilyas Khan, CEO, Cambridge Quantum Computing

In that vein, one the experts who participated in the video, Ilyas Khan, CEO, Cambridge Quantum Computing, urged the quantum community not repeat the ethical lapses of previous decades.

“My generation was asleep of the wheel in the 90s,” Khan said. “The pursuit of various different returns overcame our sensibility. If you think 100 years ago, 150 years ago, when mass media first made its appearance in the form of newspapers that millions of people would read, we put controls in place. When railways started to emerge, we put controls in place. In the mid-90s, the combination of the internet revolution and what happened with mobile telephony, we gave up, there were no controls. Now, societies get very excited about things like (the financial crisis of) 2008, and 2009 and the so-called bankers that were at fault, but this is a far, far bigger issue that we’re facing today – because of being asleep of the wheel in the 90s, and the 80s.”

Considering quantum’s potential powers, and the natural concern of the bottom 99 percent who can only stand in uncomprehending awe before that power, an ethics-first approach may be the right way to guide quantum through its development if it is to be accepted, not feared, by society at large.

As one of the experts in the video, Nick Farina, founder, EeroQ Quantum Hardware, has said, “The early stage of quantum computing is not a reason to delay ethical considerations, it’s actually a great opportunity to create ethical frameworks in advance of large scale impact.”

** Source: Steve Conway, senior adviser, HPC market dynamics, at industry analyst firm Hyperion Research.