Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.
Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collect of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.
Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.
– The Ring of Gyges, Plato 
What would you do in the place of Gyges upon finding a ring that would turn you invisible? Would you use it for a greater good? Or for your own personal benefit? What can we expect from humans to do with power over others?
These are some of the questions about human nature arising from Plato’s thought experiment in the Republic, and they remains as valid today as they were 2,400 years ago. The ring of Gyges has been used as a paradigmatic example when discussing ethics and it can be the perfect starting point towards a discussion about the ethics of quantum computation.
Although it is still not clear what the full extent of the power of quantum computers might be, there are some very particular examples of quantum algorithms that can largely outperform their classical counterparts. One of them is Peter Shor’s factorization algorithm , which can factorize any number exponentially faster than any classical algorithm on a classical computer.
Factorizing a number entails the determination of all prime numbers which multiply together to result in the original number. For instance:
The possibility to factorize large numbers efficiently might seem as a handy mathematics trick your nerdy friend might want to pull out as a closing number for his one man show, but its implications are far more complex. One of the most widely used cryptography systems is the RSA public key crystosystem, which is used to encrypt your emails, your bank transactions and your credit cards numbers via the internet. The security of the messages encoded via this encryption method relies on the fact that factorizing a large number is an extremely difficult task to accomplish using your everyday computers. This means that given a sufficiently large quantum computer (i.e., with enough qubits), you could easily break the RSA public key crystosystem and decipher the contents of its message.
I’m hopping that by now you are starting to realize as I do that a quantum computer is just as powerful as the ring of Gyges, and that we should start discussing the ethical challenges that this new era of quantum information processing is producing.
It baffles me that so little is being said about the ethics of quantum computers, while the so-called “threat” of quantum computing has been so widely broadcasted [3-6]. Almost every major nation in the world acknowledges that we could be heading towards a major internet security crisis if a hacker gets its hands on a quantum computer. Most of those governments have joined Google, D-Wave, Microsoft, IBM, Toshiba, any many other private companies in the race towards a quantum computer but no one has raised the issue of ethics so far.
It is quite obvious that whoever wins the “race” and has the ability to harness the power of quantum computers will hold an incredible advantage over those who don’t have access to these new technologies. The issue of cryptography is only one of many that arise when considering that a scalable quantum computer might be developed in the nearby future. How do we handle the intellectual property of scientific discoveries? What could happen if a government acquires a quantum computer and has the ability to decipher private messages? What if a company manages to construct one? Who could they sell it to? Won’t their profits margins bias their decisions? Wont’ they use their ring of Gyges for their own personal benefit?
As a physicist working in the field of quantum information and quantum computation I believe that these are some questions that need to be addressed not only in the scientific community, but along with private companies and nation governments. I know that with so much at stake it is a sensitive subject, but fortunately quantum computers are still in their infancy and we still have time to raise the issue.
If you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me.
 Plato, the Republic, Book II, 358d—361d.
 NSA memorandum
All text copyright © Marco Vinicio Sebastian Cerezo de la Roca.
Why we should be talking about the ethics of quantum computation by Marco Vinicio Sebastian Cerezo de la Roca is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://entangledphysics.com/.