What is quantum ethics?
Nipun Vats asked this question at the 2023 Quantum Days conference in January. The Assistant Deputy Minister of Canada’s Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development was considering the societal impact of quantum technologies in the context of Canada’s National Quantum Strategy. He pointed to the vagueness of the term “quantum ethics” and called on the quantum community to consider more specifically which quantum technology applications will affect society and how.
It should come as no surprise that a number of individuals and groups in the global quantum community are already trying to address Nipun’s concerns by answering these two questions: How will quantum technologies impact society, and what should we do about it?
For the Quantum Ethics Project (QEP), the path to answering these questions means equipping quantum researchers with the tools they need to engage in ethical and societal issues that intersect with the quantum technologies they develop. Joan Arrow, a PhD student at the Institute for Quantum Computing, launched the QEP in mid 2021 and later brought on co-founders Rodrigo Araiza Bravo, Sara Marsh, and Anna Knörr to assist the QEP with its goal of introducing societal and ethical training to graduate students in the quantum field.
While primarily operating out of Waterloo, Ontario, the QEP comprises a network of close to 100 people internationally that include not only quantum researchers, but industry representatives, non-STEM researchers, and prospective students who are looking to enter the quantum field. It is now part of the GreenHouse social impact incubator to help sustain the program’s growth and is collaborating with Center for Quantum Networks to further research in the societal impact of quantum technologies.
In a recent conversation with Joan, she explained that the QEP defines quantum ethics as “the academic discipline that studies the social, economic, and political implications of quantum technologies”. Dedicated to the three pillars of education, diversity, and research, the QEP is trying to break down the barriers that have traditionally separated and stereotyped researchers in STEM, social sciences, and humanities.
The QEP’s current focus is on education, including providing foundational knowledge to people who are new to the quantum field, as well as empowering existing researchers with ethical decision-making skills for responsible innovation.
For example, in 2022 the QEP ran a summer course on foundational mathematics for quantum research, and the QEP recently presented a guest lecture on quantum ethics for students in the Perimeter Institute’s Perimeter Scholars International Program. The QEP is also designing a multi-day workshop, which will be scaled into a full semester course on quantum ethics tentatively planned for 2024.
Under its diversity pillar, the QEP provides support to underrepresented students in the quantum field by drawing on its existing network and resources of established researchers who want to see the quantum community grow and diversify. In December 2022, the QEP awarded the “Einstein’s Brain Award” to the student who achieved the top grade in the summer program. The student completed the summer program without access to a personal computer, and as part of the award, the QEP bought a laptop computer for this exceptional student.
Under the research pillar, the QEP aims to assist quantum researchers in understanding the societal impact and underlying technical credibility of their work. The QEP recognizes that quantum hype is not just a problem for the public—researchers in the field must also understand the scope and impact of their work through a practical lens. As quantum researchers themselves, the QEP’s founders are incorporating societal impact analysis into their own academic pursuits and building the foundation for other quantum researchers to do the same.
Of course, the QEP is not the only group working to integrate societal considerations into quantum technology and improve access to education in the field. The QEP is also developing its website to become a central hub connecting other groups and organizations that are engaging in interdisciplinary initiatives like the QEP, such as:
• Quantum ELSPI project and publications at Stanford University;
• The Quantum Delta NL’s Centre for Quantum and Society;
• The University of Ottawa’s Nexus for Quantum Technologies Institute, which includes members from the University’s Faculty of Law;
• The Quantum Insider’s Call to Action for Quantum Ethics
• Oxford Quantum Circuits, who participated in the Quantum Insider’s Call to Action, and CEO Ilana Wisby’s talk on Quantum Ethics;
• The IOP Science’s Focus on Perspectives on Societal Aspects and Impacts of Quantum Technologies as part of the Quantum Science and Technology journal;
• Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator’s Proposal for an Open Quantum Institute;
• PsiQuantum’s Qlimate initiative;
• Qubit x Qubit;
• The Physics Education Research group at the University of Colorado Boulder;
• Girls in Quantum;
• One Quantum; and
• The Center for Quantum Networks Thrust 4 on Societal Impacts of the Quantum Internet.
The underlying theme to all of these initiatives is that quantum is for everyone, regardless of background or experience, and there are opportunities for anyone who is interested to learn more and contribute to the growing global quantum community.