Will quantum computing make the world better?
Quantum computing has the potential to transform a whole host of technologies, from cryptography to artificial intelligence (AI). To help ensure these changes are positive for society, Oxford researchers are aiming to embed responsible research and innovation in quantum projects, as researcher Philip Inglesant explains.
New technologies raise new questions and new opportunities. What are the opportunities and risks? Who will benefit and who will lose out? Who decides? What are the alternatives? What if we’re wrong?
Responsible research and innovation (RRI) – also known as responsible innovation – is an emerging set of practices to help ensure that the outcomes from research are beneficial and acceptable to society. This is a transparent, interactive process which encourages multiple stakeholders to work together throughout the research and innovation process to engage with ethical and social issues arising from a technology.
Quantum technologies are emerging from the laboratory to enable a new generation of products and services.
Networked Quantum Information Technologies (NQIT), one of the four Hubs in the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, has the ambitious objective of building the core components of a scalable, universal quantum computer, placing the UK amongst the world leaders in this exciting new technology. RRI, led by Professor Marina Jirotka from Oxford’s Department of Computer Science, has been embedded right from the start of this major public investment, as these technologies emerge from the laboratory to enable a new generation of products and services. NQIT is highly interdisciplinary; researchers in the Department of Computer Science are collaborating with Oxford researchers in Physics, Materials and Engineering as well as nine other universities and over 30 companies.
Some issues with quantum computing are already widely discussed. For example, it is predicted that powerful quantum algorithms may disrupt much of the public key cryptography scheme which underlies most internet security. Conversely, quantum methods also provide the potential for theoretically unbreakable, secure communications – which could protect not only high-value transactions and state secrets but might also provide a hiding place for terrorists and organised crime.
Other technologies that could also be transformed by quantum computers are machine learning and AI. These are technologies which are already having an impact through applications such as targeting of products, language processing, and, on the horizon, self-driving cars. Already, AI has implications for economic activity, for manufacturing and skilled labour as well as for knowledge work and highly expert professions such as law and medicine (see articles in issue 11 of Inspired Research). These raise important ethical issues, but also questions of their wider consequences for society, the innovation pathways they will open up or close down, legal and public policy choices, and governance to steward these technologies towards an equitable and sustainable future.
Powerful universal quantum computers are still some years in the future, but other forms of quantum computing, using other paradigms, are already in existence, and there is increasing interest in potential uses for quantum simulation and already achievable quantum applications. Quantum-related spin-off technologies will also make important research contributions and have significant industrial applications. All of these technologies, in various ways, will raise questions for RRI.
Marina is well placed to advise on this area. She has led an EPSRC project to develop a RRI framework for information and communications technology (ICT), and led on RRI for various European projects. She currently co-leads the development of the Observatory for Responsible Research and Innovation in ICT (ORBIT).
Marina says: 'Although we can already start to see how quantum computing could change the world, there are many things that we cannot predict. But if we fail to consider these questions, then undesirable as well as beneficial outcomes may become embedded in society. RRI doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but it does provide a flexible and practical framework to anticipate what might happen, so that we are ready to respond to whatever challenges quantum computing brings.'
This article first appeared in the summer 2018 issue of Inspired Research.