From the very earliest times in recorded human history, new technologies have been used for both positive and negative reasons.
Scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer, whose work ultimately led to the development of nuclear weapons, have been only too aware of how technology can be harnessed by society in ways that raise ethical challenges.
Our experience with computers is no different. New technologies have made life easier in many ways, yet we can see that when controls are lacking it can lead to unforeseen societal outcomes.
We are now on the threshold of a new computer technology era more powerful than anything that preceded it: the age of quantum computing. However, this time we have a chance to stop and think carefully about the ethical use of a transformative technology today while we can still shape the future.
Nicholas Niggli, deputy secretary general of the Republic and State of Geneva, a Swiss canton, believes it is possible to take a step back and anticipate the full breadth of the possible impact of new technologies. He cites the example of Henry Dunant, who co-founded the Red Cross. Dunant saw the impact of modern weaponry on war and conceived of the Geneva Convention as a way to instill rules designed to mitigate the new and fearsome development of mechanical warfare.
The word disruptive does not come close to describing the impact of quantum technologies. We have become used to describing new applications in sectors such as finance and banking as “disruptive,” but this term is inadequate in the context of quantum computing. There is now an informed consensus that the impact of quantum computers across a whole swathe of humanity’s lived experience will be akin to an industrial revolution at an even larger scale than anything we have previously experienced.
There exist today literally dozens of quantum processors all over the world with hundreds more likely to be unveiled this year and next. Many of these computers are still experimental, but companies such as IBM, Honeywell and Google have published roadmaps that will take today’s early-stage devices to ones that will have real-world impact. There are also dozens of start-up companies all over the world who have raised capital to build a quantum computer, including IQM in Finland, OQC in the United Kingdom and Xanadu in North America.