Thursday 24

Responsible development of quantum computing

Posted by Networked Quantum Information Technologies (NQIT) on 24 Nov 2016

UK government's quantum technologies strategy is aimed at making use of the astounding properties of quantum mechanics to develop a new generation of products which promise to transform our lives profoundly. The strategy actively promotes responsible research and innovation to ensure that these new products are socially desirable and embraced by the public.

Now one of the hubs set up as part of this strategy, Networked Quantum Information Technologies (NQIT) based at the University of Oxford, has produced a short animation explaining some of the RRI issues in quantum technologies, one of a series produced by each of the hubs.

NQIT is focussed on quantum computing – using quantum properties to do information processing in ways which are not possible with binary digital (“classical”) computers. These properties, at the subatomic scale, are counter-intuitive and seem to go against our ordinary experience: phenomena such as superposition – quantum states “added together” where electrons, photons, neutrinos, and even whole molecules behave more like waves than like particles; entanglement – groups of particles whose quantum properties cannot be separated, so that a measurement on one will be correlated with others even over a great distance. Whereas ordinary computers are based around binary digits, or “bits”, which take the value 0 or the value 1, quantum computers are based around quantum bits, or “qubits”, which can be in a superposition of 0 AND 1 at the same time.

These extraordinary properties will form the building blocks of quantum computers. However, quantum effects are hard to work with, and it is a major challenge to turn theory into practice. Quantum computers are still in their infancy, and, so far, quantum operations have only been done with small numbers of qubits, but the physics and engineering is developing rapidly. And alongside this, there is a great deal of theoretical research into quantum algorithms which will be able to find the answers to problems that would take a conventional computer an unrealistic time to solve – in some cases, it would take them longer than the lifetime of the universe.

NQIT quantum computers will use photonics and trapped ions / Credit: NQIT / Stuart Bebb

What are the RRI issues with quantum computing?

The most well-known ability of quantum computers will be to find the factors (numbers which are multiplied together) of large numbers. This is simple with small numbers – 3×5 = 15 – but rapidly becomes intractable for very large numbers using classical methods. It has been shown that a sufficiently powerful quantum computer could do this easily.

This would be a major risk for information security, since almost all Internet encryption is based around the mathematical idea that multiplying large numbers is easy, while factorising is hard.

However, in parallel with research into these quantum algorithms, researchers are also developing new forms of encryption which are believed to be resistant to being broken in this way – an example of good practices which, while not labelled as RRI, carry out the tenets of RRI in a practical way.

The risk of breaking Internet encryption is only one example of the ethical and social issues raised by quantum computing. Others include:

  • Trust and verification: because many of the calculations made possible by quantum computing cannot be replicated with classical computers, how can we be sure that the results are correct? How can we even be sure that the processes are using quantum effects, since these are so subtle and hard to replicate?
  • Big Data, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence: Quantum computing could be the key to powerful new ways to search huge amounts of data or to build neural networks – similar to the way our brains work - and so issues with quantum computing overlap with on-on-going debates about the ethics of big data analysis and the risks to humanity from computers whose intelligence exceeds that of humans.
  • Ownership and access to quantum technologies: Only large, state-level or very large corporations and research laboratories are likely to have the resources to operate quantum computers, at least for the foreseeable future. This may cement or increase imbalances of power between these powerful actors and ordinary consumers and citizens.

Thinking ahead to the world of quantum computing

These are potential ethical and social issues for the future, once quantum computers become a reality. But RRI teaches us that we should think about these concerns now, while this is still “basic” science, anticipating the issues so as to be prepared however the future pans out. NQIT is engaging with industry, policy-makers, strategic thinkers, and quantum experts, as well as working within the project to encourage project leaders and researchers at all levels to think about what it means to be responsible in research and innovation.

​Stakeholder events provide an opportunity for dialogue around the issues that may arise from quantum computing / credit: Kirsty Allen

In the immediate term, uncertainty about when powerful quantum computing will be achieved, and what it will eventually be able to do, is itself an ethical concern, because it opens a contested space in which real concerns may be overwhelmed by competing narratives. These narratives include notions of “spooky” and “impossible to understand” quantum science: some might ask, if even the physicists cannot understand what is going on, how can we be sure that quantum technology will not have some unforeseen consequences?

There could be narratives suggesting that we should be wary of quantum technology “meddling with the fundamental fabric of Nature”, echoing public concerns about nano-technology and GM organisms. Misunderstandings of quantum science might lead to exaggerated or even completely false ideas about what quantum computing might lead to. Our aim in RRI is not to educate or reassure the public, but to provide a balanced viewpoint which takes real concerns seriously but does not allow alarmist and ill-informed ideas to take root.

You can read a detailed account of the issues around quantum computing in our document “Thinking Ahead to a World with Quantum Computers: The Landscape of Responsible Research and Innovation in Quantum Computing” and a summary Policy Brief.

Philip Inglesant

Philip Inglesant works at the RRI strategy for the NQIT of the University of Oxford

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