Over the past six years, quantum science has noticeably shifted, from the domain of physicists concerned with learning about the universe on extremely small scales, to a source of new technologies we all might use for practical purposes. These technologies make use of quantum properties of single atoms or particles of light. They include sensors, communication networks, and computers.
Quantum technologies are expected to impact many aspects of our society, including health care, financial services, defence, weather modelling, and cyber security. Clearly, they promise exciting benefits. Yet the history of technology development shows we cannot simply assume new tools and systems will automatically be in the public interest.
We must look ahead to what a quantum society might entail and how the quantum design choices made today might impact how we live in the near future. The deployment of artificial intelligence and machine learning over the past few years provides a compelling example of why this is necessary.
Let’s consider an example. Quantum computers are perhaps the best-known quantum technology, with companies like Google and IBM competing to achieve quantum computation. The advantage of quantum computers lies in their ability to tackle incredibly complex tasks that would take a normal computer millions of years. One such task is simulating molecules’ behaviour to improve predictions about the properties of prospective new drugs and accelerate their development.
One conundrum posed by quantum computing is the sheer expense of investing in the physical infrastructure of the technology. This means ownership will likely be concentrated among the wealthiest countries and corporations. In turn, this could worsen uneven power distribution enabled by technology.
Other considerations for this particular type of quantum technology include concerns about reduced online privacy.
How do we stop ourselves blundering into a quantum age without due forethought? How do we tackle the societal problems posed by quantum technologies, while nations and companies race to develop them?
Charting a path
Last year, CSIRO released a roadmap that included a call for quantum stakeholders to explore and address social risks. An example of how we might proceed with this has begun at the World Economic Forum (WEF). The WEF is convening experts from industry, policy-making, and research to promote safe and secure quantum technologies by establishing an agreed set of ethical principles for quantum computing.
Australia should draw on such initiatives to ensure the quantum technologies we develop work for the public good. We need to diversify the people involved in quantum technologies — in terms of the types of expertise employed and the social contexts we work from — so we don’t reproduce and amplify existing problems or create new ones.
While we work to shape the impacts of individual quantum technologies, we should also review the language used to describe this “second quantum revolution”.
The rationale most commonly used to advocate for the field narrowly imagines public benefit of quantum technologies in terms of economic gain and competition between nations and corporations. But framing this as a “race” to develop quantum technologies means prioritising urgency, commercial interests and national security at the expense of more civic-minded concerns.
It’s still early enough to do something about the challenges posed by quantum technologies. It’s also not all doom and gloom, with a variety of initiatives and national research and development policies setting out to tackle these problems before they are set in stone.
We need discussions involving a cross-section of society on the potential impacts of quantum technologies on society. This process should clarify societal expectations for the emerging quantum technology sector and inform any national quantum initiative in Australia.
Picture: Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
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