Quantum is a word that invariably causes people’s eyes to either glaze over or ignite.

Quantum concepts – such as the many-worlds interpretation – are popularised in shows and films that spoof on the theory. Quantum lexicon is rife across business names in spaces that have absolutely nothing to do with physics. Yet, despite quantum’s ascendency to mainstream culture, most people tend to believe that understanding quantum is beyond them. But here’s the thing: you don’t need to understand the nitty gritty of quantum theory to engage in the conversation. These are the things you should know about quantum and why.

Quantum fundamentals by Q-CTRL

Demystifying quantum

As a social scientist who studies quantum science and technology (read: not a physicist), I’m interested in cultivating an accessible definition of quantum for diverse audiences. This is my current iteration:

Quantum mechanics describes how the universe works on a subatomic level. Just as Einstein’s theory of general relativity explains how the world that you and I can see is ruled according to forces like gravity, quantum relates to the world of the very small and comes with its own unique set of rules.

Understanding the rules of the quantum world enabled us to build things like lasers and transistors—innovations that are essential for technologies like MRI machines, mobile phones, and computers.

The next generation of quantum technologies that researchers are currently working on include quantum computers, communication systems, and sensors. These devices can only be created by controlling and manipulating the extremely fragile quantum behaviour of light and matter at the subatomic level to produce novel technological capabilities.

Quantum computers are undoubtedly the most hyped form of quantum technology. Contrary to popular belief, these devices are not simply super-supercomputers. They work by exploiting entirely different physical laws than your laptop or your smartphone, and they might never be used in a general way like these personal devices and even supercomputers are. Researchers employ a handful of different approaches to building quantum computers, and most quantum devices are purpose-built to solve a specific type of problem, like factoring huge numbers.

The quantum devices used by researchers today aren’t all that useful. They are highly error-prone and cannot outperform classical computers at most tasks; many take up an entire room and require temperatures as cold as deep space to operate.

The business of quantum

Regardless of the hazy horizon, governments worldwide (including Australia) are pouring vast amounts of money into developing these devices with the hope that they will be transformational across a diversity of civilian and military applications. So too, are companies. Many of the biggest household names in technology—including IBM, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Alibaba, Honeywell, Fujitsu, and Intel—are heavily invested in quantum computing research and development.

Some of the most prominent business cases for quantum computers are in pharmaceuticals and finance. An advanced quantum computer should be able to simulate structures of novel chemical compounds to create personalised medicines for treating rare diseases. Quantum applications are also touted across the financial services sector for future solutions in cybersecurity, and to be used in risk profiling and asset trading optimization—so it’s no surprise that banks like Commonwealth Bank Australia are also invested.

Visions of quantum futures

The truth is, we can’t know for certain what the future holds for quantum nor what quantum holds for the future. It’s even within the realm of possibility that quantum computers may never reach a useful state of development and might end up a failed technology. It’s more likely, however, that next generation quantum technologies will transform how digital information is produced, processed, and transmitted on a global scale. What that means for society is another question.

No one could have mapped the future of the World Wide Web when it first went live, and the same is true of quantum. Based on what we know now, the vast majority of the risks believed to be posed by quantum are not actually unique to these emerging technologies.

Quantum could further entrench existing social issues

From facial recognition to loan assessment to recruitment, we’ve seen that when AI technologies developed in the predominantly white, male, Silicon Valley bubble are applied carelessly to real world problems they can cause irreparable harms to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations of society.

Quantum machine learning is a new field of research that aims to apply the power of quantum computing to AI systems, essentially to create super-powered AI capabilities. This intersection could deliver major breakthroughs in areas such drug development and weather modelling. However, without addressing the underlying issues that advocates in the ethical AI community are working to uncover—including the absence of diversity and built-in biases—applying quantum to the job risks cementing power imbalances on a local and global level.

The geopolitical stakes of quantum are high

While the quantum research community is globally collaborative today, this may not be the case once a major breakthrough in quantum computing is achieved. The stakes are high for the nations developing quantum capabilities: quantum sensors could pinpoint the locations of submarines and stealth aircraft, quantum communications networks can send hyper-secure messages around the world, and a quantum computer should eventually be able to break most modern encryption standards.

The geopolitical dimensions of quantum are already impacting international relations and the maintenance of an open quantum science and research community is a significant risk. At the same time, national safeguarding of quantum capabilities will likely provide unequal access to the benefits and distribution of harms that these technologies may bring.

Preventing these complex challenges from surfacing is not a straightforward job. Ethical guidelines and principles can be helpful and the law provides useful scaffolding for protecting citizens from unintended harms. However, these approaches alone are not enough to ensure that the development of quantum technologies creates greater benefits and results in fewer harms. An engaged and informed society is also a critical piece of the puzzle.

Thinking global, acting local

Australia is a strong force in the global quantum industry and Sydney is Australia’s quantum hub. The Sydney Nano Institute has partnered with Microsoft to develop cutting-edge hybrid technology that will help to bridge the gap between classical and quantum infrastructures. Australia’s first venture-backed quantum start-up, Q-CTRL, also had its start at the University of Sydney, where the company’s CEO Professor Michael Biercuk and his team explore quantum control.

This ecosystem also supports Project Q led by Professor James Der Derian at the Centre for International Security Studies, which aims to engage a broad audience in the conversation about quantum futures. I am a contributor to Project Q’s DFAT-funded Quantum Meta-Ethics project, in collaboration with the Observer Research Foundation in New Dehli, which takes a transnational and transdisciplinary approach to developing ethical frameworks for emerging quantum technologies.

As quantum technologies begin to move from lab to industry there is still much important work to be done around demystifying quantum and making it more accessible. The onus should not be on the general public—that work belongs to scientists, startups and corporates, governments, and academics. The visual and performing arts can also contribute to making the quantum world accessible, open, and engaging.

Quantum may seem a faraway concept to most people, but its development is a national priority for our own government as well as the global superpowers. Society has an important role to play in shaping the technological futures ahead of us, but only if they are empowered to do so.

Image: Anton Maksimov 5642.su

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