More of that weird quantum art that always comes with quantum computing press releases.
Illustration: E. Edwards/JQI (NIST)

Quantum computers that can crack our strongest encryption methods might be decades away—but a group of entrepreneurs and researchers think we better start talking ethics now.

Perhaps one of the year’s biggest stories was our collective realization that our data isn’t nearly as secure as we thought—and that tech companies aren’t acting in our best interests. Quantum computer researchers are developing machines that might require a complete overhaul of present-day encryption and that may one day have the powerful potential to do harm. A startup, EeroQ, is hoping to begin the conversation around ethics in the quantum computing field.

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For the purpose of this conversation, you need only know that the quantum computer is a nascent technology that relies on the mathematics of subatomic particles to perform calculations difficult or impossible for classical computers. A powerful-enough quantum computer might lead to better machine learning algorithms, create models of molecules to help develop new drugs, or solve optimization problems like how to most efficiently allocate airplanes at airport gates. But it could also theoretically crack encryption strategies that are based on how hard it is for classical computers to factor large numbers. Today’s quantum computers are small, error-prone, and haven’t found a real “killer app,” but they’re quickly advancing in complexity.

With this backdrop, startup EeroQ has funded a new effort to jumpstart the ethics conversation around quantum computing. The founders of EeroQ launched the website QCethics.org and released a paper this week at the Quantum For Business conference in Mountain View, California.

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“Ultimately, this paper is a mere starting point,” EeroQ’s CEO Nicholas Farina told Gizmodo, “but we believe it’s critical to start the conversation now.”

But why now? The paper’s author, philosophy Ph.D and business ethics consultant Sean Holland, writes that quantum computing companies are developing a product that, though distant, carries enormous potential for both benefit and harm. “Seizing the unique opportunity to identify and address the important ethical issues raised by quantum computing now is our best means of mitigating or eliminating these significant future risks to people, businesses and society,” Holland writes. Second, quantum computing has entered a new era in which the devices may soon find actual uses, and it’s unclear what those uses will be or how they affect us.

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Quantum computers are already worrying security researchers, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology is working on standards for quantum-safe cryptography. Indeed the U.S. government is treating the potential for other countries to beat us to developing a powerful quantum computer as a national security concern. Perhaps they can be weaponized or used to advance military capability. Holland lists other potential issues surrounding quantum computing’s benefits: Since a lot of quantum computing research is publicly funded, how do we ensure that the benefits to fields like healthcare are fairly distributed?

There could be other issues scientists and ethicists haven’t thought of yet; this group hopes to get ahead of the ethics debate so as not to miss opportunities. For example, one company, Zapata, recently released an algorithm that might allow noisier quantum computers to factor large numbers sooner, an advance that would put all our encrypted data at risk sooner as well. “It’s that kind of unknown that really motivates a lot of the concerns,” Holland told Gizmodo.

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EeroQ drafted the white paper with the help of co-founder Faye Wattleton, who was president of Planned Parenthood from 1978 to 1992. She told Gizmodo that developing the ethical framework around quantum computing should be a multidisciplinary endeavor. “This is an opportune time for the sector to at least support thinkers who may be able to frame an ethical framework,” she said.

Everyone I spoke to, including physicists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, and one historian, agreed that it’s never too early to start discussing ethics, and said that physicists should check their science-for-science’s-sake attitude. “It’s up to each of us in the industry to always bridle our enthusiasm for all things quantum with the pragmatism of plotting out the potential unintentional implications of the technologies we create,” William Hurley, CEO and founder of quantum computing startup Strangeworks not involved in this current effort, told Gizmodo.

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Patrick Lin, philosophy professor and director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University, told Gizmodo that it could be hard to predict what consequences quantum computing will have. “We need to be very careful about taking action, i.e., creating policy, if much is still unknown,” he said, but added that we should be prepared to take action once an issue does pop up. And, given the global nature of physics research despite national political interests, it will likely take international agreement in order to tackle the issues, Lin said. “At the same time, we should be sure to include marginalized voices, not just from one’s own community or country, but also from developing nations.”

The quantum computing field is in a different place than perhaps early computers were; we’ve already seen the road down which development without a firm ethical framework can take us, said Chris Garcia from the Computer History Museum. MySpace’s founders likely didn’t anticipate Russian hackers one day using social media to sway elections, for example.

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I also asked Garcia the importance of a startup like EeroQ, rather than just people in academia, leading the conversation. He said it is important for businesses in the field to lead the way. After all, we sometimes have a tendency to be harder on companies who violate self-imposed ethical frameworks, like Google’s “don’t be evil,” than we are on companies already doing evil things. Though it could be easy for a company to break an ethics code when money is tight, he said.

Still, it’s not the big players that worry Garcia. “It’s the access of sufficiently dangerous technology in the hands of dangerous people,” he said. “That’s the scary thing,” and another reason to pursue an ethical framework early.

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Useful quantum computers and worrying applications are likely at least a decade away. But now that they are a real possibility, it’s worth considering their impacts sooner—especially given how dire the consequences might be.