Despite the limitations, the momentum behind quantum technology continues to grow. A forecast from the International Data Group predicts that 25% of Fortune 500 companies will use quantum computers in the next three years.one Quantum is on track to become a business mainstay within the decade.
As the use of quantum computers increases and moves from research to business-specific applications, we are likely to see ethical risks emerge in a number of different areas. These challenges can be broken down into others that undo existing protections, exacerbate existing problems, and create entirely new classes of risks. The following issues should be taken as representative of the types of risks we can see rather than a definitive list of all risks.
Quantum could potentially threaten existing protections
Cyber security: Some experts have predicted that within a decade hackers and hostile nation-states could use quantum computers to break existing encryption protocols. This would deal a huge blow to a wide range of Internet services, including e-commerce and other virtual financial transactions, that rely on encryption.two The cybersecurity protocols of widely used blockchain technologies such as Ethereum and Bitcoin would also be vulnerable to such attacks, highlighting the need for blockchain developers to upgrade their platforms to use post-quantum cryptography.3
To address the growing cybersecurity risk posed by quantum computers, organizations can benefit from becoming “crypto-agile.” Cryptoagility is the ability of organizations to quickly update their cryptographic algorithms, parameters, processes, and technologies to better respond to new protocols, standards, and security threats as they rapidly evolve.4 This approach requires organizations to take inventory of their data, the data exchanges, and the cryptographic algorithms that protect it. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is working to identify quantum-resistant encryption standards, and companies should start preparing to adopt them when they become available.5
Access: The typical person or smaller business is unlikely to own a quantum computer due to its physical and technical complexity, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit. Governments and organizations that want to move everyone along the technology adoption curve equitably should think about how to share the knowledge gained from quantum computers. They have a variety of mechanisms at their disposal, including grants, subsidies, and other policies, that can greatly accelerate access if we as a society decide it’s important.
Vendors who build and own the technology can also play a role. Investors are increasingly using environmental, social, and governance metrics to assess the companies they fund, and many companies now consider diversity, equity, and inclusion to be a top priority. Technology companies developing quantum computing systems could make equitable access a central aspect of both initiatives.
Quantum could exacerbate existing risks
Artificial intelligence, data collection and privacy: In recent years, there have been great efforts to protect data privacy and ensure that AI technologies are used fairly and for the benefit of the public. Despite these efforts, rampant data collection still takes place. Since future quantum computers will be able to process large volumes of data faster than today’s most sophisticated servers, the availability of quantum computing could further incentivize organizations to collect even more data from consumers, thus boosting data collection. data that is already held.
Explainability: Quantum computers, and especially quantum machine learning, present the ultimate black box problem. Machine learning developers are familiar with this problem. Deep learning neural networks are notoriously opaque. However, experts in the field are developing tools that could allow the models’ hidden processing layers to be unraveled to understand how they arrived at an answer.6 And while those answers come with limitations, explainability is at least theoretically possible.
The prospects for explainable models are compounded by quantum machine learning. With quantum computers, explainability is more of a physics problem than a programming problem. It will be difficult to evaluate and judge the decision-making process of quantum algorithms because they will recognize even more complex patterns in more data points than current machine learning models. The current problem of explainability will be amplified.
Global tensions and the quantum “arms race”: Most industrialized countries today are investing heavily in the development of quantum technologies. China, India, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States are expected to spend a total of US$5 billion on quantum technologies in 2022.7 The situation is sometimes referred to as a new global “arms race”, as quantum computing is seen as central to future defense technologies. Given how early in the technological journey it is, it’s not clear that “arms race” is the appropriate term. However, we know that narratives have a way of taking on a life of their own. Positioning efforts to develop quantum capabilities as an arms race could have the unintended consequence of heightening tensions between nations. At this point, we urge caution against characterizing this as an “arms race” as nations continue to explore quantum technologies.
Quantum could create new risks
Of many possible new risk scenarios, examples could include:
Health and life sciences: Quantum computers are expected to play an important role in gene editing by helping biomedical researchers understand the effects of subtle genetic changes. Gene editing itself is controversial, but quantum computing could add to concerns by enabling faster new forms of research. This does not mean that DNA editing should be avoided. It could eliminate many genetic diseases and have other benefits. But researchers working in this area must remain vigilant for any possible unintended consequences of their work.
Emerging Materials: Quantum computers are expected to drive research and development of new materials. They are likely to perform sophisticated simulations of how small changes at the molecular level alter the properties of a material, which will be of great help in areas such as drug discovery, carbon capture and chemical production. Yet the history of new materials shows how often seemingly beneficial things can end up causing harm. For example, when the insecticide DDT was first introduced, it seemed like a no-brainer for its ability to reduce insect-borne diseases. But people eventually realized that its use was devastating bird populations, and it was banned in much of the world. Similarly, the plastics were initially received with great enthusiasm. We are only now realizing how damaging they can be to the environment. As they work toward the discovery of new materials, materials researchers must keep this history in mind and try to ensure that future advances do not come with similar environmental complications.
Many of the ethical pitfalls of quantum computing are still on the horizon and thus cannot be addressed immediately. But every day they get closer. There are some actions that companies and governments can take now to prepare for the day when the future of quantum technology arrives.
Stakeholders can begin to think about the potential challenges and understand the ways that their use of quantum computing may create ethical risks in the future. The good news is that you don’t have to start from scratch. There are existing ethical frameworks for understanding the impact of technology, and many of the key considerations can be generalized to quantum computing. These can help senior leaders think about how to build ethics into their work from the start.
This understanding should inform the quantum strategy of organizations. It is probably too early to take direct action regarding ethics and quantum computing. But companies must convene internal leaders and experts to determine the trigger events, such as a new technology breakthrough or competitor action, that will signal the need to act or increase investment. Approaches to ethical risk mitigation should be part of the development of a trusted quantum technology strategy.
Waiting until the challenges are fully presented might be too late. By developing an understanding of how quantum computers create ethical risks now, you can make dealing with long-term pitfalls easier in the future.
Quantum computing promises to be extremely powerful. We cannot look only to the technology industry to protect us from these threats. Government regulations should be part of the solution, but they usually take years to come along. In the short term, leaders who are ready to embrace quantum technology must protect themselves and their customers. Now is your chance to potentially avoid the kinds of ethical pitfalls left behind by the “move fast and break things” era.