Dec 11, 2021 - Technology

Charting an ethical path for quantum computing

Illustration of a loading screen on a computer with an electron breaking through the side of the screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As quantum computing matures, industry experts are calling for ethics to be taken into account as early as possible.

Why it matters: Previous technological development in social media and AI took place before their makers fully grappled with the ethical considerations.

  • The early stage of quantum computing means there's still time to better shape its development.

What's happening: From total decryption to more powerful AI, quantum computing could eventually affect nearly every corner of life — which is why now is the time to think about what the technology should and shouldn't do, experts say.

  • Earlier this year, a group of quantum computing insiders released a video meant to raise awareness about the ethical questions that society will face in the coming quantum age.
  • Quantum computers could superpower AI, potentially worsening the negative effects of that technology, while quantum algorithms could help financial firms game the market, increasing income inequality.
  • "Like any technology, it can be used as a force for good and it can also be used as a force for not so good," said Ilana Wisby, CEO of Oxford Quantum Circuits, in the video.

Between the lines: The fact that quantum computing is still in such an early stage of development means that its potentially negative effects could be forestalled before they impact large groups of people.

  • One way is to ensure that — unlike many earlier technological leaps — is involving a more diverse group of people in actually designing quantum computing, says Eliška Greplová, a quantum expert at the Delft University of Technology.
  • The catch: While the overall quantum workforce is still tiny — giving it room to diversify as it grows — women and Black and Hispanic students are highly underrepresented in quantum-related disciplines like physics and computer sciences.

Context: Quantum computing ethics faces what's known as the Collingridge dilemma, the idea that there is a trade-off between knowing the impact of a new technology and how easy it is to influence its trajectory.

  • As a nascent technology with relatively little economic impact so far, quantum computing would be easier to control than a mature one like facial recognition, but because it is new, it's difficult to know exactly how it should be controlled.
  • The sheer scientific complexity of quantum computing is another obstacle to managing it — if AI is a black box, quantum computing is a black box within a black box that may or may not have Schrödinger's cat somewhere inside.

The bottom line: "Quantum capability when it exists will mean so many things, and we can't be taken by surprise by it," says Quantinuum CEO Ilyas Khan. "This should be for humanity, and not just for the few people who can afford it."

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