New technologies bring new opportunities and new risks, and quantum computers are no exception. While companies and governments are investing billions in quantum technologies, many questions remain about usage and use cases. Quantum’s “known unknowns” include potential ethical considerations from abuse, misuse, or unintended consequences. To safeguard organisations and their reputations, leaders will need to put appropriate ethical guardrails in place. The challenge, of course, is designing guardrails for a technology that currently has undefined powers and applications.
It might seem too early to worry about the ethical implications of quantum computing given the lack of certainty as to when we’ll see widespread use. However, now is a perfect time. The world knows what happens when it doesn’t get ahead of potential ethical pitfalls. Without a top-down mandate for ethical development, technologists meet business objectives, but their creations can lead to unintended, ethically fraught consequences. Consider how quickly machine learning was embedded into business processes before most understood how damaging it could be to an organisation’s customers and reputation.
Despite limitations, the momentum behind quantum continues to grow. A forecast by the International Data Group predicts that 25% of Fortune 500 companies will be using quantum computers in the next three years.1 Quantum is on track to become an enterprise mainstay within the decade.
As the use of quantum computers increases and they move from research to business-specific applications, we are likely to see ethical risks arise in several distinct areas. These challenges can be broken down into ones that undo existing protections, exacerbate existing problems, and create entirely new classes of risks. The following issues are meant to be taken as representative of the types of risks we may see rather than a definitive list of all risks.
Cybersecurity: Some experts have predicted that within a decade, quantum computers could be used by hackers and hostile nation-states to break existing encryption protocols. This would represent a major blow to a wide array of internet services, including e-commerce and other virtual financial transactions, which rely on encryption.2 The cybersecurity protocols of widely used blockchain technologies, like Ethereum and Bitcoin, would also be vulnerable to such attacks, which highlights the need for blockchain developers to update their platforms to use postquantum cryptography.3
To address the growing cybersecurity risk posed by quantum computers, organisations may benefit from becoming “crypto-agile.” Crypto-agility is the ability of organisations 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 organisations to inventory their data, data exchanges, and the cryptographic algorithms that secure them. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is working to identify quantum-resistant encryption standards, and enterprises should start preparing to adopt them when they become available.5
Access: It’s unlikely that a typical person or smaller company will ever own a quantum computer due to their physical and technical complexity, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit. Governments and organisations that want to move everyone along the technology adoption curve in an equitable way should think about how to share knowledge gleaned from quantum computers. They have a range of mechanisms at their disposal, including grants, subsidies, and other policies, that can accelerate access broadly if we, as a society, decide it’s important.
The vendors who build and own the technology may also have a role to play. Investors are increasingly using environment, social, and governance metrics to evaluate the companies they fund, and many enterprises now consider diversity, equity, and inclusion a top priority. Technology companies developing quantum computing systems could make equitable access a core aspect of both initiatives.
Artificial Intelligence, data harvesting, and privacy: In the past several years, there have been major pushes to protect data privacy and ensure that AI technologies are being used fairly and in ways that benefit the public. Despite these efforts, rampant data collection still takes place. Since future quantum computers will be able to process large volumes of data more rapidly than today’s most sophisticated servers, the availability of quantum computing could further incentivise organisations to collect even more consumer data, thus supercharging the data harvesting that already takes place.
Explainability: Quantum computers, and especially quantum machine learning, presents the ultimate black box problem. Machine learning developers are familiar with this issue. Deep learning neural networks are notoriously opaque. However, experts in the field are developing tools that could make it possible to unravel the hidden processing layers of models 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 aggravated with 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 recognise even more complex patterns across even more data points than today’s machine learning models. The current problem of explainability will be amplified.
Global tensions and the quantum “arms race”: Most industrialised countries today are investing heavily in the development of quantum technologies. China, India, Japan, Germany, Netherlands, Canada, and the United States are expected to spend a combined 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 critical to future defence technologies. Given how early it is in the technology journey, it’s not clear that “arms race” is the appropriate term. However, we do know that narratives have a way of taking on lives of their own. Positioning efforts to develop quantum capabilities as an arms race could have the unintended consequence of ratcheting up tensions between nations. At this point we urge caution with regard to characterising this as an “arms race” as nations continue to explore quantum technologies.
Out of many possible new risk scenarios, examples could include:
Health care and life sciences: Quantum computers are expected to play a significant role in gene editing by helping biomedical researchers understand the effects of subtle genetic changes. Gene editing on its own is controversial, but quantum computing could ramp up concerns by enabling new, faster forms of research. This doesn’t mean that DNA editing should be avoided. It could eliminate many genetic diseases and have other benefits. But researchers working in this area should remain vigilant to any potential unintended consequences of their work.
Emerging materials: Quantum computers are expected to supercharge research and development of new materials. They will likely perform sophisticated simulations of how small molecular level changes alter a material’s properties, leading to a major boon in areas such as drug discovery, carbon capture, and chemical production. However, 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 looked like an obvious good for its ability to reduce insect-borne diseases. But people eventually realised its use was devastating bird populations and it was banned in much of the world. Similarly, plastics were initially met with great enthusiasm. We’re only now realising how harmful they can be for the environment. While working toward new material discovery, materials researchers should be mindful of this history and try to ensure that future breakthroughs don’t come with similar environmental complications.
Many of the ethical pitfalls of quantum computing are still on the horizon and so aren’t immediately addressable. But they are approaching nearer every day. There are some actions enterprises and governments can take now to prepare for the day when quantum’s future arrives.
Stakeholders can start thinking through the potential challenges and understand the ways their use of quantum computing may create ethical risks in the future. The good news is that they do not have to start from scratch. There are existing ethical frameworks for understanding the impact of technology, and many of the key considerations are generalisable to quantum computing. These can help senior leaders think about how to build ethics into their work from the start.
This understanding should inform organisations’ quantum strategy. It’s likely too soon to take direct action regarding ethics and quantum computing. But enterprises should convene internal leaders and experts to determine trigger events, such as a new technological advancement or action by a competitor, that will signal the need to act or increase investment. Approaches to ethical risk mitigation should be part of developing a trustworthy quantum technology strategy.
Waiting until challenges present themselves fully could be too late. By developing an understanding of how quantum computers create ethical risks now, you can make dealing with the longer-term pitfalls a lighter lift in the future.
Quantum computing promises to be extremely powerful. We cannot look to the tech industry alone to protect us from these threats. Government regulations should be a part of the solution, but they generally take years to advance. In the near term, leaders who are poised to adopt quantum should safeguard themselves and their customers. Now is their opportunity to potentially avoid the kinds of ethical pitfalls that the “move fast and break things” era left behind.
Quantum technologies, and their heady promise, are in the news. With the promise of breakthrough innovations in drug development, financial modelling, climate change, traffic optimisation, machine learning, batteries, and more, is now the time to invest? By the same token, how much concern is warranted about quantum computing’s future ability to break today’s encryption standards? As business and technology leaders strive to make thoughtful choices for today and tomorrow, what needs to be done to get ready for a quantum-enabled future? What future risks need to be considered–and potentially mitigated–starting today? Contact the authors for more information.