Why we should be talking about the ethics of quantum computation

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 [1]

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 [2], 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: 1234567890=2*3^2*5*3607*3803

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.

[1] Plato, the Republic, Book II, 358d—361d.

[2] Peter W. Shor, Polynomial-Time Algorithms for Prime Factorization and Discrete Logarithms on a Quantum Computer

[3] NSA Says It “Must Act Now” Against the Quantum Computing Threat 

[4] NSA memorandum

[5] Australia: Govt Prepares for Quantum Computing Threat to Encryption

[6] Prepare for Threat of Quantum Computing to Encrypted Data, Canadian Conference Told

[7] Here, There and Everywhere, Quantum technology is beginning to come into its own

 All text copyright © Marco Vinicio Sebastian Cerezo de la Roca.

Creative Commons License
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/.

About marcocerezo

I'm Marco Cerezo, I have a Ph.D in Physics and I'm currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, USA. My main fields of study are Quantum Information, Quantum Computing and Condensed Matter. Currently I'm working to develop novel quantum algorithms which can be useful in near-term quantum devices.
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4 Responses to Why we should be talking about the ethics of quantum computation

  1. Hi Marco, my name is Christian Dickel and I work on experimental realizations of the quantum computer at TuDelft in the Netherlands. I think the reason we don’t focus on the ethics so often is because we are quite caught up in the pursuit of the quantum computer. In addition, we are not making enough progress to be scared of our product just yet. In my opinion, the quantum computer develops too slowly to be a disruptive technology and there are viable post-quantum options for cryptography. Still, as researches we should have a discussion about the ethics of our work. A big question that is hardly discussed right now is how companies can team up with research institutes for quantum computing and turn this into profit. A lot of the initial work was payed for by the public and we are going to now let select big tech companies capitalize on this. I guess that’s normal in our economy but it is a transfer of public investment to private profit.

    • marcocerezo says:

      Hi Christian!
      First of all I want to thank you for your comment. I agree that we are still a few decades away from a scalable universal quantum computer, which is why I believe that now is a good time to start thinking about these questions. I do believe however that quantum technologies are rapidly being developed (China’s satellite, small commercial quantum processors), and that the massive investments being thrown their way will do nothing but further increase their advance.
      What I’m most concerned about is, as you pointed out, the involvement of private companies and nation government developing quantum information processors, which makes the discussion about ethics even more complicated (if history has thought us anything is that when profit is the goal, ethics is always ignored).

      I would like to ask your permission to add your comment about the “transfer of public investment to private profit” to my post. I will of course acknowledge you!
      Marco Cerezo

      • Sure you can! I’m always wondering whether the development we are seeing is fast or slow. On the one hand, qubit systems are scaling up and improving: In superconducting qubits (the hardware platform I currently work on) we have seen qubit coherence times go from nanoseconds to milliseconds and now there are the first chips with more than 10 qubits. Going from tens of qubits to hundreds of qubits is not inconceivable at this point.
        On the other hand, even with Intel, Microsoft, IBM and Google playing the field, it doesn’t look like we will reach the numbers to do chemistry simulations or break encryption in the next decade – maybe not even in the next twenty years. The numbers of qubits and gates required to do these things are mind-blowing. The overhead for quantum error correction is huge – maybe 1000 qubits per logical qubit. The three big platforms that are currently being pushed: Superconducting qubits, ion traps and quantum dots each have scaling issues that need to be overcome – quantum dots even need to get within the fault tolerance thresholds.
        The other question is: Are there ethical things to worry about related to quantum computing. Breaking encryption is something that happens – Alice, Bob and Eve have been fighting for millenia. I personally would’t build the quantum computer for the NSA but I don’t think they could develop it in secret and be so far ahead of the field. Solving all material science and chemistry problems on quantum computers can of course be used for good and evil but won’t lead to fundamentally different chemistry or material science related ethics problems. I think there will be lots of profit and little ethical consideration.
        But the Chinese satellite example you put forward is very interesting ethically. What if quantum communication protocols worked and we might have true privacy in long distance comunication guaranteed by quantum mechanics. Will this become a mainstream thing? Or will our governments make it impossible to use – after all terrorists could use it as well. Is it a good or a bad thing? I think quantum communication protocols – even using long-distance entanglement – could be implemented in the next 20 years and our governments are obviously not ready for this.

  2. Pingback: What is Quantum Computing – MOMO

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