As 2022 arrives full of uncertainty, one thing remains guaranteed: quantum computing is set to step out of the shadows.
Many are announcing quantum technology as the ‘next big thing’ in tech. And it has become a hot topic among investors and research and development (R&D) communities. This is largely because quantum computing has the potential to solve problems that wouldn’t be possible using conventional ‘classical’ computers.
Harder, better, faster, stronger – quantum computing is promising to transform the way we think about and understand the world around us.
Right now, the technology is still at an early stage (as in, no one has built the first practical quantum computer). Even so, excitement is at an all-time high. Health care (pharmaceuticals), climate modelling, machine learning and cybersecurity are just a few examples of where quantum might deliver significant value.
Confused? Don’t worry, quantum computing is inherently confusing
Hype aside, many of us are still struggling to understand how quantum computing works – and what makes it so ‘new’. And rightly so, according to Professor Jim Rabeau, Director of our Quantum Technologies Future Science Platform (FSP).
“Understanding the power of quantum computing requires us to think differently about how information is processed,” Jim explains.
Quantum computers use ‘qubits’ which can be electrons, photons or other small particles. Only the very non-intuitive science of quantum mechanics can explain the qubit behaviour.
But what’s more useful to focus on is how using quantum mechanics enables us to conduct multiple operations all at once.
Jim compares classical versus quantum computing using the analogy of old-school style phone directories.
“Rather than searching line by line, page by page, imagine being able to instantly find the name and number you are looking for by looking at all pages and all lines at once,” he says.
Quantum computing makes it possible to process vast amounts of information very quickly. This is simply because it is looking at all ‘possibilities’ (or in this case, names and numbers) simultaneously.
“In the case of pharmaceuticals, it means we would be able to very quickly look at all possible structural combinations of atoms and molecules to form the perfect drug to address a particular disease,” Jim says.
“Such things are not feasible with classical computers.”
The bottom line is that the quest to harness the potential of quantum computing is on. We are rapidly making progress to close in on gaps between research and real-world applications.
A (quantum) leap into the unknown
Quantum technology has been on our minds a lot lately. For starters, our researchers are exploring how we could use quantum computers to outperform today’s computers. For example, quantum computers could crack the cryptography protocols that keep our data private, making current security measures virtually useless.
It’s not just post-quantum cryptography we’re exploring. The ethical challenges associated with it need to also be assessed. For example, providing fair and secure data storage and communication systems.
As with any new technology, the assumption is that humans will automatically know to do the right thing – or even that we will agree on what that might be. This is where developing and applying ethical standards and responsible governance guidelines can help.
It’s not entirely about stopping CEOs in tech companies from using the technology for nefarious purposes. That is, as Responsible Innovation FSP Director Dr Justine Lacey says, “a little too simplistic.”
“It suggests that all bad outcomes are merely the result of bad actors,” Justine says.
There will always be a risk of an individual using technology in an unethical way.
“But what’s easier to lose sight of is whether or not a technology is used to generate broad societal benefit. And this also means ensuring it is not used to inadvertently create harmful outcomes, by for example, overlooking certain socioeconomic groups, or undermining cybersecurity measures,” she says.
To help ensure quantum technology benefits everyone, we recently joined forces with the World Economic Forum and contributed to their latest Insight Report released at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022.
This report outlines a set of governance principles. They are the result of an extensive international multi-sector collaboration with stakeholders from across the globe. Their aim is to help guide responsible design and adoption of quantum technology by applying best-practice governance principles.
New guidelines will help guide responsible quantum
It’s a familiar discussion that has ramped up over the last 10 years around ethics and artificial intelligence (AI). Except this time around, according to Justine, we are getting on the front foot.
“The development of global governance principles for quantum technology presents a rare opportunity to embed responsible innovation practices from a very early stage and well before we have seen wide application, uptake and commercialisation of the technology,” Justine explains.
“It also comes at a time when those in the quantum technology community are starting to consider how the application of this technology may broadly impact our lives and society, and how we can steer its application toward producing more desirable societal outcomes.
“If we look to similar discussions on responsible AI, it is clear a major stumbling block was not the development of high-level ethical principles to guide the development of responsible AI systems. In fact, hundreds of such frameworks and guidelines exist.
“The real and persistent challenge has been in how to effectively operationalise those principles to transform the practice and deployment of those AI systems,” she says.
Recognising this, the Forum has designed quantum technology governance guidelines specifically for adoption by quantum technology stakeholders. They are unique from other new technology ethical guidelines by providing directed guidance and practical ‘off-the shelf’ applicability.
Unlocking innovation for decades to come
The guidelines drew on a diverse array of thinking around quantum technology from all over the world.
Justine and Jim are excited to see the guidelines embedded not only in the research and development stage of quantum technology, but through early-stage translation, commercialisation and application.
“It’s an ideal time to be embracing this,” Jim says.
“I am really glad to have people like Justine to work alongside as we ramp up the effort to translate quantum technology research into viable industry applications, with active consideration and implementation of Responsible Innovation from the get-go.”