Apocalypse now? What quantum computing can learn from AI

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A few years ago, many people imagined a world run by robots. The promises and challenges associated with artificial intelligence (AI) were widely discussed as this technology moved out of the labs and into the mainstream.

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Gemma Church, head of comms, Universal Quantum (opens in new tab).

Many of these predictions seemed contradictory. Robots were mooted to steal our jobs, but also create millions of new ones. As more applications (opens in new tab) were rolled out, AI hit the headlines for all the right (and wrong) reasons, promising everything from revolutionizing the healthcare sector to making light of the weight of data now created in our digitized world.

But, from Amazon’s sexist AI recruiting tool to racial bias and Tesla’s driverless car crash, many other examples of the pitfalls of poorly implemented AI soon appeared.

“AI will not live up to its promise if the public loses confidence in it as a result of privacy (opens in new tab) violations, bias, or malicious use, or if much of the world comes to blame it for exacerbating inequality,” analyst house McKinsey warned in 2018.

Fast forward to 2021 and the Institute for Ethics in AI was set up at the University of Oxford with many similar initiatives now appearing to tackle the issues of how we can use AI in an ethical and safe manner.

AI is not the first technology to undergo this push-and-pull between revolutionizing and/or destroying the world. As the Institute for Ethics in AI website states: “Philosophers made a major contribution to the development of medical ethics 40 years ago, and we are now at a tipping point where a similar ethical intervention is needed to cope with the questions raised by the rise of AI.”

Tim Berners-Lee also envisioned that his invention could, in the wrong hands, become a destroyer of worlds. He has spent most of his life trying to guard the internet against those looking to exploit it.

“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalized groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit,” Berners-Lee said in 2018, reflecting on his invention for the worldwide web’s 30th anniversary.

Quantum worlds

Quantum computers are now entering the real world and find themselves in a similar position to so many technologies that have gone before. However, we are starting to hear the first rumbles of protecting quantum computers from those that would abuse this technology.

The popular security protocol OpenSSH (opens in new tab), for example, now includes a quantum security layer to protect against “capture now, decrypt later” attacks – where future quantum machines decrypt information protected by today’s encryption techniques.

However, as the hype around quantum computing reaches fever pitch, it's worth remembering that to unlock the true potential of these machines, they need to get bigger. Much bigger.

Today’s quantum computers are of the order of 50-100 quantum bits (qubits), but we need to reach the million-qubit scale to realize the game-changing real-world applications that these are capable of.

Recent research undertaken by Universal Quantum and collaborators demonstrates that a quantum computer with 13 million physical qubits could break Bitcoin encryption (opens in new tab) within a day, and it would take a 300 million qubit computer to break it within an hour. The work automates the calculation of how many qubits are required as a function of different hardware assumptions with considerable progress in reducing the physical size of quantum computers.

The scientists also focused their research on the potential of quantum computers to play a key part in tackling hunger and climate issues by simulating the FeMoco molecule, which is responsible for biological nitrogen fixation and a common object of research in quantum computing. The FeMoco molecule is important for converting nitrogen in the air into ammonia, which could then be used for fertilizers.

“We are currently spending around 2% of the world energy supply on just this process, so a better understanding of the FeMoco molecule could greatly improve efficiency in this field with immense positive impact on world food scarcity and the climate crisis. But these two use cases are the tip of the iceberg, we’re only just starting to understand the impact on society for reaching quantum advantage,” said Dr Mark Webber, quantum architect at Universal Quantum and the paper’s lead author.

In other words, quantum computing not only has the potential to break the world’s most famous blockchain technology but also tackle a major issue in the fight to tackle world hunger. And that’s the tip of the iceberg – these machines are mooted to transform multiple industries, revolutionizing everything from drug discovery to materials science and climate change.

The research also highlights one of the major challenges that quantum computing faces – and I’m not talking about the race to a million qubits. I’m talking about what happens when we get there. Because, as with any emerging technology, quantum computing and its impact on the wider world is only starting to be understood.

In truth, we still don’t know the full extent of what these machines are capable of.

With great (computational) power, comes great responsibility

A quick comparison on Google Trends reveals current interest in quantum computing ethics is pretty much zero. There have been a few bylines around the issues of ethics in quantum computing but early calls from the scientific community require more attention and action.

But quantum computers with millions of qubits are decades away, right? So, there’s no need to worry now, right?

Wrong, on both counts. Many quantum computing companies have ambitious roadmaps to get to the million-qubit range.

There are many ways to make a quantum computer. In recent times, we’ve seen companies scaling up their quantum computers, one qubit at a time. But as quantum technology matures and different approaches are used, other companies have bolder ambitions to create architectures capable of scaling incredibly fast using novel, modular designs.

The time to imagine a world with a million-qubit quantum computer is now. Someone’s going to win the race to one million qubits, and we can’t ignore the quantum revolution forever. As Neil Armstrong once said when addressing the Joint Sessions of Congress in 1969 after the Apollo 11 mission, “Science has not yet mastered prophecy. We predict too much for the next year and yet far too little for the next ten.”

Because quantum computers will change the world. Whether that’s for better or worse is not in the hands of quantum computers, but the humans who will use these machines.

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Gemma Church, head of comms, Universal Quantum.