ARTICLE - GOSIA CABAJ
Is it too early to talk about responsible quantum technologies?
The rise of quantum technologies is all over the news, but their factual impact stays unknown. So there still is time to influence the development towards responsible use of the technologies. But what could that mean while the implications are not fully understood yet – and who should be responsible for the ethical considerations? A transdisciplinary group of researchers, practitioners and industry stakeholders met at the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (KIT-ITAS) in Karlsruhe between the 28th until the 29th of July 2023 to discuss these questions.
What are currently the main concerns around quantum technologies?Rebecca Coates (CSIRO Australia) starts the workshop presenting results of a survey of technical and ethical risks around quantum computing and cybersecurity in Australia. One of the main concerns is the fear of breakdown of cryptographic solutions occurring in the next five years. This is also what troubles most politicians, which leads to a lot of national initiatives around quantum technologies. A lot of metaphors around this development – like quantum supremacy or quantum race – bear military connotations. “Quantum Race isn’t something you can win, not like nuclear power”, says Carolyn Ten Holter, researcher at the Responsible Technology Institute at the University of Oxford. “The first meaningful quantum computer won’t change geopolitics, the race aspect isn’t helpful”, she adds. Many scientists believe that it is too early to ask ethical questions around quantum technologies, instead they believe the research time should go into developing the technology.
"Quantum Race isn’t something you can win, not like nuclear power. The first meaningful quantum computer won’t change geopolitics, the race aspect isn’t helpful."
Carolyn Ten Holter, Responsible Technology Institute at the University of Oxford
Another widespread fear is the “quantum winter” – the drying up of the investment needed to pursue the development of the technology. The current hype around quantum technologies, especially around quantum computing, has led to both national governments and global tech companies allocating significant sums of money to mobilise their scientific communities. If no significant developments will be made in achieving quantum computing at scale, a steady flow of investment might stop, warns Natasha Oughton from the UK National Quantum Computing Centre in Oxford. At the same time a “talent war” – yet another militaristic figure of speech – is causing a lot of companies to invest into workforce development and community engagement.
What could responsible quantum technologies mean?Among all these uncertainties the ethical questions are being considered as less important than the technical risks, claims Rebecca Coates. She is working on applying the responsible innovation theory to quantum computer ethics, as she believes they should be considered different to artificial intelligence ethics. “There is a common misconception that artificial intelligence ethics are a groundwork for quantum computing ethics, but the fourth industrial revolution will transform the way we think about responsible use of technology”, she says.
Mira Wolf-Bauwen (IBM Research Europe) also reflects on the difference between classical technology ethics and quantum technologies. As Responsible Quantum Computing Lead, she is developing responsible technology frameworks, methods, and tools for the in-house colleagues to work with. She defines responsible quantum computing as “aware of the power of its effects” and urges to consider the implications of technology. Companies like IBM are not working on quantum computers because it’s an interesting physics experiment, but because there are real life problems to be solved.
Who is responsible for making the technologies responsible?Are the scientists developing the technology solely responsible for its implications? Wenzel Mehnert (Austrian Institute of Technology) points to the “bad actors” narrative in debates surrounding development of quantum computing. The discussion is mostly concentrating on the misuse of the technology: “A large scale quantum computer could be used to break existing security protocols” and not on the intended use. That shifts responsibility from the researchers to the developers and then from the developers to the users, which leads to the question: who will end up being the “bad actor”? But are technologies neutral tools? And, as another participant of the workshop points out, should “rich people wanting to get richer” be classified as “bad actors”?
İlke Ercan (TU Delft) says the responsibility for putting the ethics in the process of designing technologies shouldn’t be put on one shoulder and systemic changes need to be made, both in the universities curriculum (she is working on creating a “Quantum Information Science & Technology” (QIST) master’s programme) and in the industry. “How can we bring the social scientists and the engineers together?”, she asks. “We need to be as inclusive as possible in terms of stakeholders – because it’s public funding, we can systemically enforce that.”
"Tax-funded institutions have an obligation to think about the impact on the society, not pretending, that there is a distance between lab and the society."
Mira Wolf-Bauwen (IBM Research Europe)
Considering the amount of public money flowing into development of quantum technologies, regulations seem to provide a helpful outlook. “There is a tendency with emerging technologies to say they happen so fast, the regulations are not helpful”, says Natasha Oughton (UK NQCC), “but we can be more agile around regulations, we shouldn’t use that argument to avoid them”. Douglas K. R. Robinson (OECD) is in favour of developing shared values around quantum technologies. But whose hierarchy of values should be considered? And how can we put them into practice? The best ethical guidelines are useless if people developing the technology can’t use them. “Tax-funded institutions have an obligation to think about the impact on the society, not pretending, that there is a distance between lab and the society”, says Mira Wolf-Bauwen (IBM Research Europe). “We need to be constantly poking the bear and bringing ethics to part of the normal discourse”, she adds.
How to spark a debate around responsible use of quantum technologies?Lack of awareness and understanding of implications of quantum technologies makes a meaningful dialogue around ethics difficult. “There is nothing happening in civil society around quantum technologies because it’s hard to understand”, says Alexandre Artaud (TU Delft), remarking about how frustrating he found the depiction of quantum computing in the new season of Netflix’s ‘Black Mirror’ series. Rebecca Coates (CSIRO Australia) points out that there is very little empirical research around how much the public knows about quantum technologies. “How can we know the public’s perspective if we barely understand how the science works in order to explain it to them?”, she questions.
"How can we know the public’s perspective if we barely understand how the science works in order to explain it to them?"
Rebecca Coates (CSIRO Australia)
But how much do the public need to understand to engage in the debate? Carrie Weidner (University of Bristol) believes that we need layers of knowledge in the democratisation processes. There are a lot of resources around quantum technologies on the internet – not everybody has to study quantum technologies at master’s level to be able to advocate for responsible use of technologies.
More and more artists are getting involved into using quantum technologies or selecting it as a subject in their works. Gosia Cabaj from the Goethe-Institut London talks about ‘Studio Quantum’, an international residency series, which will enable more artistic involvement and public conversations around quantum technologies. Günter Seyfried talks about his project at the company “Biofaction” (supported by KIT), where he is trying to simulate a quantum computer with slime moulds.
“Inclusion is the key term to avoid failure”, says Bart Karstens (Rathenau Institute) after two days of discussions. It might be early days, but involving diverse voices and considering all the stakeholders is a way forward for responsible quantum technologies.
About the workshop
‘Responsible Quantum Technologies’ was a hybrid workshop organised by Zeki Seskir and Christopher Coenen as part of the QuTec project at the ITAS (Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology between the 28th until the 29th of July 2023. Recordings of the talks can be found online on the ITAS website.