Quantum technology promises to shift the boundaries of what machines can do. Advancing our capacities to acquire, process and transmit information, quantum technology has the potential to impact nearly all domains in society. Therefore, we should start anticipating the future role of quantum technology and the ethical, legal, social and policy implications that come with it. One way of informing ourselves about how to do this is by making use of historical analogies. The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) developed a framework for embedding so-called system technologies into society based on a historical analysis of how society dealt with such technologies in the past. In this article, the conceptual framework of system technologies is reinterpreted as an anticipatory strategy to prepare society for quantum technology and vice versa. The proposed strategy has five dimensions: (1) countering unrealistic perceptions (demystification), (2) investing in a facilitating socio-technical environment (contextualisation), (3) engaging stakeholders and civil society (engagement), (4) creating flexible frameworks (regulation) (5) and developing international ‘quantum diplomacy’ (positioning). By actively engaging in these processes, society enables itself to guide the development of quantum technology and its impact within society.
Are we at the dawn of a quantum revolution? The answer to that question seems to depend on whom you ask. The optimists will point to the ground-breaking implications of successfully controlling quantum systems – the sceptics will point out the many potentially unsurmountable obstacles underway. On the contrary, asking any expert whether there is reason to be excited about quantum technology, and the answer will be unequivocal yes. Although the path to success may be unclear and bumpy at best, we are currently witnessing the rise of a technology that promises to shed light on many areas that were long covered in the shadows of physics. More specifically, quantum technology could help us to learn more about physics at the micro-scale, and if we manage to control these phenomena, we could harness quantum properties for novel approaches to applied physics and applied mathematics – eventually impacting sectors from telecommunication to medicine and from defence to the energy sector.
Recently, the field of quantum technology that uses quantum principles to build technologies such as computers and sensors has made impressive steps forwards after years of steady progress. As quantum applications are expected to mature in the years to come, it is time to think about these developments from a societal perspective. In this article, I propose an anticipatory strategy to prepare society for quantum technology and vice versa. I do so by drawing on a framework developed by the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) for embedding so-called system technologies into society.
In Sect. 2, I set the stage for my analysis. First, I briefly sketch at which point in the history of quantum technology we currently are and argue why we need to start a broader discourse about quantum technology now (i). I then reflect on the question of what we can expect from quantum technology in the coming years and the challenge of preparing society for an unknown future (ii). In Sect. 3, I propose a conceptual framework for thinking about the impact of quantum technology. I introduce the concept of ‘system technologies’ (WRR, 2021) and use it to characterise quantum technologies as a technological family with a potentially broad and diverse impact on society (i). I discuss historical lessons about shaping the impact of such technologies (ii) and describe the five dimensions of this process (iii). Finally, in 4, I develop an anticipatory approach to quantum technology. By elaborating on the dimensions of demystification (i), contextualisation (ii), engagement (iii), regulation (iv) and positioning (v), I lay down a roadmap for preparing society for quantum technology and guiding its impact. In doing so, the article seeks to contribute to the nascent interdisciplinary discussion on the implications of quantum technology.
2 Why We Need to Start Talking About Quantum Technology Now
In this section, I will address the question of why a field that has steadily progressed for years is suddenly spotlighted and why we should start discussing quantum technology from a societal perspective now (i). I will discuss what we can expect of quantum technology in the years to come and elaborate on the difficulty of being at a certain point in history trying to anticipate an unknown future (ii).
2.1 The Next Train Station
We are currently witnessing the second ‘quantum revolution’. The first revolution concerned the discovery of quantum principles that challenged the rules of the physical world. In the second revolution, these principles are applied to develop new technologies (Dowling & Milburn, 2003). This marriage between quantum theory and technology development gave birth to what has been called quantum technology: technologies that make use of quantum mechanics. Initially, the field of ‘quantum sensing’ emerged, with technologies that use quantum properties to measure analogue or physical quantities. More recently, the merge of quantum mechanics and information technology created the field of quantum information technology (QIT). By harnessing quantum properties such as superposition and entanglement, QIT seeks to adopt a fundamentally different approach to computational problems and the processing of digital information.
In line with the two quantum revolutions, we could differentiate between two classes of quantum technology. In the next section, this classification will be further specified. The first class of quantum technologies could be classified as ‘quantum sensing technologies’, with subfields as quantum metrology, quantum radar, quantum navigation and quantum imaging. The second class of ‘quantum information technologies’ includes subfields like quantum computation, quantum simulation and quantum communication. In the next section, I will elaborate on these classes and their outlooks. For now, it is most important to highlight that quantum sensing and quantum information technologies differ in their preceding histories and are at different stages in their development – with sensing already producing real-world applications while QIT is not near leaving the confines of the lab. Nonetheless, I will take quantum technology in general into consideration in this article. Focusing on the whole ‘technological family’ of quantum technologies allows for us to see structural challenges, yet leaving room for differences in issues that apply more to one class than the other, and eventually paves the way to a broad, integrated understanding of what it takes to equip society for an increasing role of quantum technology.
As QIT is ‘the new kid on the block’, much of the current quantum debate is focused on the prospects and implications of this class. For that reason, I will often refer to the dynamics and issues raised by QIT throughout the article, although references to the more mature class of quantum sensing technologies or quantum technology in general, will also be made. Because of its prominent place in this article, it is helpful to provide some background information about QIT before proceeding. Roughly speaking, QIT promises to provide a substantial advantage over current, classical information technologies. To realise this so-called quantum advantage of the super-classical performance of controlled quantum systems, we must overcome mathematical challenges as well as engineering challenges, mostly to maintain quantum states. These states are prone to disturbing effects, in the first place due to imperfections of the experimental environment. But even if we manage to overcome these practical and theoretical challenges and create a perfect setting, quantum states will inevitably suffer from uncontrollable interactions with the environment (‘noise’). This phenomenon of disturbance, known as ‘decoherence’, debilitates quantum states and causes errors in the system, eventually making quantum systems behave classically. The more complex the system is, generally, the more vulnerable it is to decoherence. Recently, the idea took root that we could correct such errors and protect quantum states from decoherence. In other words, It was discovered that quanta do not have to behave perfectly in order to work with them. This theory of error correction improved the perspectives for achieving a quantum advantage over classical information processors (Preskill, 2012, 2021) and was an important driver behind the current quantum revolution (Deutsch, 2020).
Ever since Richard Feynman ignited the thinking about QIT with his ambition to simulate physics with a computer, the field has made gigantic progress. The current rise of public attention for quantum technology primarily focuses on QIT and can be ascribed to (claims) of milestones in the number of qubitsFootnote 1 – the quantum equivalent of the classical, binary information bit, able to take any value between 1 and 0 – that can be successfully controlled and claimed proofs of the possibility of quantum advantage.Footnote 2 Recent breakthroughs brought scientists closer to the development of a fully functioning quantum computer. That is not to say that such a machine is now within easy reach: Scaling up from a quantum computer with several tens or even hundreds of qubits to a million-qubit quantum computer that can actually be useful is very hard and requires more than just patience. It cannot be stressed enough that QIT is still in its infancy and its future is highly uncertain. Still, firms and venture capitalists invest heavily, followed by pioneering governments with (inter)national funding initiativesFootnote 3 (Allison et al., 2021). What drives the quest for scalable quantum computers is its promise to surpass the limits of our classical devices, for example, when it comes to optimisation, pushing the boundaries of computation. By doing so, QIT has the potential to substantially advance many areas of research, stretching from chemistry to finance and from medicine to materials science, eventually affecting various domains in society.
Just as no one in the early 1900s could have foreseen how electricity would transform the world and no one in the 1980s could have predicted how the classical computer would penetrate every aspect of our daily lives, so too is it impossible to forecast the future of quantum technology and its impact on society. This does not, however, rule out the possibility nor the responsibility to anticipate that future. Not only despite but also because of the early phase of development and application, we should start thinking about the ethical, legal, social and policy implications (ELSPI) of quantum technology (e.g. Kop, 2021a: 13). Once a technology matures, design choices translate into usage patterns and stakes, making it extremely hard if not impossible to change its design or redirect its use – a moment known as ‘closure’ (Bernstein, 2006). I elaborate on this phenomenon in the context of the Collingridge dilemma in Sect. 4. The idea of closure constitutes why it is important to start a broader discussion on quantum technology now. With quantum technology being in its infancy, we are now in the position to think about how we want the quantum society to look like and to create the necessary conditions to proactively shape its evolution. Or as Luciano Floridi formulates it, ‘the best way to catch the technology train is not to chase it, but to be at the next station’ (Floridi, 2018: 6).
2.2 Expecting the Unexpected
To the annoyance of specialists, quantum technology is often spoken of as a magical tool or a general problem-solving machine, outwitting today’s smartest computers. In the case of QIT, the reasoning that underlies this misconception is that the potential mathematical power of quantum technology is thought of as superior to that of classical computers, hence surpassing their capacities to solve mathematical problems across the board.Footnote 4 Here, QIT is mistakenly considered a continuation of Moore’s law, fitting in the pattern of steadily increasing computational power (Aaronson, 2008; De Wolf, 2017). Understanding quantum technology within the framework of classical computers fits into a historical pattern of explaining new technologies in terms of old technologies with a new add-on, known as the ‘horseless-carriage’ trap.Footnote 5 The risk of this fallacy is to overlook the novelty of the new phenomenon and its effects. We will further discuss the myth of QIT as computers with superpowers in the next section, but for now, it is relevant to see how this image articulates an expectation of QIT that is both too low and too high. Too high, because experts are unanimous in their belief that quantum computers will not replace classical computers. Too low, as the idea of the quantum computer as a next step within the current computer paradigm ignores the fundamentally different operating principles, potentially enabling quantum computers to efficiently solve a class of problems that are too complex for conventional computers (so-called BQP class).Footnote 6
What can we expect from quantum technology, then? Honestly, we are not sure (e.g. Aaronson, 2015; Preskill, 1997). We do not know how – if ever – quantum technology can live up to its promise as a useful special-purpose machine. John Preskill, an important conscience to the field of quantum technology, admits that even if we manage to build such machines, it is everything but straightforward what we would use them for – adding with confidence that ‘we would somehow think of many clever ways to use them’. Although the way to success and even the definition of success in this context may be unclear, this does not mean that we should ‘dismiss quantum technology as science fiction’ (Aaronson, 1 March 2008: 63). Despite a low technology readiness level, experts generally believe that quantum technology could provide significant improvements in both accuracy and speed for a specific range of applications. To briefly look at some of these applications, it is useful to differentiate between three kinds of quantum technology: (1) quantum sensing, using the sensitivity of quantum systems to acquire information; (2) quantum computing, exploiting quantum properties to process information and perform computational tasks; and (3) quantum communication, harnessing quantum principles to transmit information.
Of the three categories, quantum sensing is the most mature quantum technology. Exploiting quantum effects, highly sensitive quantum sensors can be used to substantially advance the accuracy of measuring properties in the physical world (Degen et al., 2017). Quantum sensing applications are already being used in the military and for intelligence purposes (e.g. for detecting underground structures), and further developments are expected to be most consequential for the defence and security sector. However, quantum sensing could also offer improvements and new capabilities to, for example, medicine (e.g. early diagnosis through quantum imaging) and applied physics (e.g. atomic clocks). Whereas the first generation of quantum sensing applications relies on classical physics and electronics to measure quantum phenomena – which has also been referred to as quantum metrology – the new generation uses quantum effects like entanglement and superposition, aiming to further improve the precision, accuracy and repeatability of measurements (Hoofnagle & Garfinkle, 2022: 31–76).
For the category of quantum computing, the outlook is more uncertain. Here, it is helpful to differentiate between two subcategories: quantum simulation and quantum computers. In the near term, quantum simulation is the most interesting form of quantum computing. Quantum simulators could be understood as quantum computers designed for solving one type of problems. These quantum systems are engineered to run a specific algorithm. Hence, less operations are needed than for a machine that is aimed at solving more general questions. Current ‘noisy’ qubits – i.e. qubits that interact with their environment – are already able to perform such specific tasks and so the outlook for quantum simulators looks promising. As specific problem-solving machines, they could provide insights into model systems and, thereby, into real physical systems. As such, quantum simulators are closest to Richard Feynman’s original ambition to have quantum computers simulating natural quantum systems (e.g. biomolecules) (Preskill, 1997: 2). As the simulation of models of the physical world ‘is instrumental in advancing scientific knowledge and developing technologies’ (Johnson et al., 2014), quantum simulation has the potential to advance research in many other fields. Eventually, this technology could benefit drug design, materials development and engineering. Aircraft companies, for example, experiment with quantum simulation predicting the flow of air over a wing to enhance the design (Tovey, 2017).
Quantum computing in the sense of using controlled quantum systems to solve more abstract problems – which is often meant when talking about ‘quantum computers’ – is technologically much more complex than simulation. In this case, the number of operations increases massively, and with current noisy qubits, this means that also the chance of error rises dramatically. In short, the probability of a successful computation – i.e. the performance of a universal task – can easily drop to practically zero. Fully functioning quantum computers are thus not expected to see the light of day anytime soon. It looks like we will need fundamental breakthroughs to develop scalable quantum computers, similar to what the invention of the transistor meant for the development of the classical computer (Hoofnagle & Garfinkel, 2022: 462). If we will be able to overcome the physical, engineering and mathematical challenges, quantum computers promise significant speed-ups for optimisation and AI (e.g. Deutsch, 2020; Dunjko & Briegel, 2018). This could have implications for all sorts of efficiency gains in diverse domains. Although the potential of quantum computers for machine learning is a source of excitement, the prospect of an advantage in solving classical problems is still unclear (Huang et al., 2021; Hoofnagle & Garfinkel, 2022).
The last class of quantum technology that we will discuss here is quantum communication. In quantum communication, quantum states are used to encode messages – or to crack them. This highlights the dual-use character of quantum technology: large enough quantum computers will be able to decode nearly all of today’s encryption, disrupting the security of much of the open internet and digital economy (De Wolf, 2017; Hoofnagle & Garfinkel, 2022). On the other hand, quantum communication could enhance information security by producing complex encryption keys (i.e. quantum encryption) and uncovering message interception by the entanglement of a message and its receiver and could potentially benefit privacy by bypassing the collection of meta-data (Hoofnagle & Garfinkel, 2022). In the near future, the most impact is expected from this subfield of quantum cryptography. A more futuristic promise within the field of quantum communication comes from the quantum internet. The idea is that the quantum internet will connect (quantum) computers and enable sending and receiving information by using qubits. Recently, quantum internet received a lot of attention due to a high-profile Nature article on quantum teleportation (Hermans et al., 2022). These researchers managed to transfer quantum information between two non-directly nodes by the entanglement of qubits, thereby laying the foundations of the quantum internet. Although we can rightly be impressed by this milestone, we should not be seduced to expect the quantum internet within the coming decade. The step from entangling three qubits to entangling ten or a thousand qubits is again much harder than ‘just scaling up’.
Speculating any further about the exact implications of quantum technology risks to be exactly that: speculation – an oversimplified extrapolation of what we know today. It is impossible to imagine how exactly these quantum technologies will develop over the next decades and how they will eventually be used Or as Preskill describes it, ‘…our imaginations are poorly equipped to envision the scientific rewards of manipulating highly entangled quantum states, or the potential benefits of advanced quantum technologies’ (Preskill, 2012). Instead, we should acknowledge the uncertainty about how the future will unfold itself and approach its implications with caution.
Perhaps, the most cautious expectation of the impact of quantum technology is that it will advance (applied) research in many other domains – reaching from chemistry and physics to biology and machine learning – eventually impacting society by the real-world applications that such research translates into. Rather than the diffusion of stand-alone quantum devices, we should probably expect the transformational potential of quantum technology to lie within the enhancement of existing technologies and the acceleration of discoveries. This promise encourages us to start equipping ourselves adequately – but how? What could ‘expecting the unexptected’, as Preskill (2012) argues, look like? In addressing that question, the concept of ‘system technologies’ can be useful.
3 Characterising Quantum Technology as a ‘System Technology’
In this section, the concept of ‘system technology’ is used to characterise quantum technology, providing us with a useful angle to approach its evolution. First, I introduce the concept as coined by the WRR and argue how the quantum technology family could be considered a system technology (i). Following the WRR, I will discuss some general historical lessons from our experience with previous system technologies (ii). I conclude by reframing the five tasks that the WRR identified for embedding system technologies into society, as five dimensions of an anticipatory strategy for quantum technology (iii).
3.1 System Technologies: Technologies with a Systemic Impact
Throughout history, there has been a special class of technologies that has had a transforming effect on society at large. Examples are the steam engine, electricity, the combustion engine and the computer. The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR)Footnote 7 coined the concept of system technologies for this kind of technologies: Technologies with a systemic impact on society. The WRR developed this concept in the context of AI, seeking to characterise AI in a way that is useful for analysing its societal impact. Related concepts, like ‘general-purpose technologies’ (Bresnahan & Trajtenberg, 1995), ‘technological revolutions’ (Perez, 2017–2020) or ‘key-enabling technologies’ (European Commission, n.d.), tend to focus on the specific technological features and/or its effects on the economy. In order to shift the attention away from the technology itself and its economic implications towards the complex co-development of technology and society, the WRR introduced the new concept of ‘system technology’ (WRR, 2021: 127–128). System technologies share that they have impacted society across the board. The concept allows for acknowledging the novel nature of technology while enabling us to capitalise on our collective experience with embedding such technologies into society. In addition, the concept of system technologies highlights the system-like character of such technologies themselves: Each system technology often comes in a variety of shapes and can be divided into different classes that differ in their functioning and use. AI, for example, could be seen as an umbrella term for a variety of technologies that share their display of intelligent behaviour in varying degrees. In the same vein, quantum technology could be understood as a family of technologies that make use of quantum mechanics.
The term ‘system technology’ primarily serves to focus on the impact of a technology that spreads widely across different sectors. This makes it an interesting approach for ELSPI research in the context of quantum technology. Could we, then, rightfully understand quantum technology as a system technology? From what we know now, quantum technology is not likely to penetrate our daily lives in the way that electricity or the personal computer have done. As briefly touched upon before, quantum technology is expected to be a special-purpose technology (Aaronson, n.d.; Möller & Vuik, 2017) and to remain very demanding in its operating conditions. Besides the fact that the first electric installations and computers were room-sized and everything but user-friendly – and we thus should not rule out the possibility that one day quantum technology becomes easier accessible than we can imagine now – it seems reasonable to assume that the impact of quantum technology will be more indirect and less visible. That is not to say that it will not impact society widely: As discussed earlier, quantum technology can potentially affect nearly every sector by offering new capabilities for measuring, processing and transmitting the information. As such, the quantum technology family has the potential to become a system technology in the sense of producing applications across all domains. What can we learn from historical analogies with earlier system technologies when it comes to guiding this process?
3.2 General Lessons About System Technologies
According to the WRR, history shows some general patterns in the introduction of system technologies into society (WRR, 2021: 134–136). The first is that this entails a complex process of co-development between technology and society that takes decades. Hence, it is impossible to assess the benefits and risks beforehand, simply because such traits take shape in the interaction and mutual adaptation between technology and society. Even when looking at a consolidated technology like the car, the process of embedding is still ongoing with its infrastructure, regulation and public attitude continuously changing. System technologies become part of a system that is always in flux. That means that the markers we lay down for how we align technology with our values and goals can never be thought of as being permanent – especially in the early phase when the technology is likely to transform quickly and the process of mutual adaptation between technology and society is probably most turbulent. In the case of quantum technology, it is thus important to realise that society is not a static entity and that the assessment of opportunities and threats will be a dynamic, long and continuous project in which diverse actors in society are involved. In the case of quantum technology, we are just facing the first signs of such a process.
The second lesson is that the development of system technologies and their effects are unpredictable. Most of the time, we did not foresee the eventual uses of new system technologies and their effects differed from what we expected. That is not a shortcoming of our forecasting capacities but seems inherent to the evolution of system technologies. In unforeseen ways, the steam engine changed warfare, the car altered spatial planning, electricity stimulated the emancipation of women, and the computer added a whole new dimension to our living environment with the online space. Cars were thought of to make traffic cleaner compared to horses, and the railway was expected to bring peace by connecting countries. Exactly because system technologies operate within different sectors, continuously improve and ignite all sorts of complementary innovations, it is highly unpredictable how a system technology and its uses will develop and how its effects will turn out. Just like the computer entered our lives in ways we could not have foreseen in the early days of the PC, quantum technology and especially QIT could also have many future applications that we cannot think of now and will only discover when we have the devices (Aaronson, n.d.). We should be aware of this factor of uncertainty when discussing the ELSPI of quantum technology and take into account that both its development and its effects will take unforeseen directions.
Thirdly, the WRR argues that it is characteristic for system technologies to potentially affect all public values in society. Because system technologies do not have one specific purpose as such (like a bicycle or a toaster has) or operate exclusively in one specific context, they have effects in all kinds of domains, hence interacting with all kinds of values. The use of AI in healthcare could, for example, affect central values in this domain like solidarity and autonomy, whereas its use in the public sector would have consequences for values like transparency and non-discrimination. This observation implies that in ELSPI research, we should be careful with making lists of values that could be impacted by quantum technology.Footnote 8 Such lists could function as a useful discussion starter, but risk to ignore that quantum technology could potentially affect all kinds of values in ambiguous ways.
The last pattern that the WRR discerns is that there is no inherent tension between normative frameworks on the one hand and innovation and economic success on the other hand. History shows that regulation could be an important enabler for innovation, providing developers and users with certainties and creating trust among the general public. Who would dare to drive a car, plug in an electric device or make online money transactions if there were no norms and regulations to make the use of such technologies safe and secure? The frame of rules hindering innovation is sometimes articulated by parties that benefit from the absence of regulation. Of course, a ban on the use of facial recognition could be explained as limiting. However, in general, the experience is that regulatory frameworks rather promote the uptake of technology than stopping it. In the context of quantum technology, this means that we should not be reluctant in exploring how these technologies relate to existing regulations and we should be encouraged to reflect upon the role of regulatory instruments in ELSPI research. In the next section, we will take a closer look at the kind of regulation that adequately balances between leaving room for innovation and providing guidance and checks.
3.3 Five Dimensions of Co-evolution Between Society and Technology
Based on a historical analysis of system technologies, the WRR identified five ‘societal tasks’ for embedding such technologies into society (WRR, 2021: 139–174). In this article, these tasks are reinterpreted as five dimensions of the co-evolution between technology and society. This provides us with five possible strategies to anticipate quantum technology and its implications for society by (1) demystifying the technology, (2) investing in its socio-technical context, (3) engaging other disciplines and stakeholders, (4) preparing regulation and (5) taking a position vis-à-vis international players and practices. Proactively addressing the challenges within these dimensions contributes to the creation of an ecosystem for the successful development of quantum technology, both from a technological and societal perspective. Before briefly explaining each dimension, it is important to note that no hierarchy or sequence applies to these dimensions. All entail crucial elements for a happy marriage between technology and society, and all require continuous attention and effort, though sometimes there is more work to do along certain dimensions than others.
The first dimension is called demystification. This is related to the image of a technology and is crucial when it comes to the general attitude towards it. The WRR describes how every system technology was at its introduction accompanied by fantastical ideas about what the technology is capable of and by exaggerated expectations as well as fears. Unrealistic ideas about technology not only divert attention away from the real issues in need of debate but may also result in an overall rejection of the technology (thereby missing out on its potential benefits) or in reckless risk-taking (thereby increasing the likelihood of a ‘techlash’). Therefore, the WRR states that one of the tasks of society is to work on the demystification of a new system technology: It is important to stimulate the general knowledge about a system technology and actively counter beliefs that contradict the technological reality.
The second dimension is contextualisation. This is about extending our attention from the technology itself to the context within which it should function. The WRR points to the fact that system technologies always work within a socio-technical ecosystem. To make the technology work in practice, therefore, not only requires the technology performing excellently but also asks for investments and adjustments in supporting and emerging technologies, as well as on the level of people’s behaviour and organisational structures. According to the WRR, embedding a system technology, therefore, requires contextualisation: paying attention to the socio-technical ecosystem instead of only focusing on the technology.
The third dimension is the engagement of different disciplines and parties in society. History shows that the introduction of new system technologies at first tends to deepen the existing power structures and tends to create new ones. The WRR considers it crucial to empower and engage civil society if we want the system technology to benefit society as a whole and to align it with our core values, such as equality and justice. Engaging civil society can serve as a voice for vulnerable populations and enrich public discourse by bringing in values that have been disregarded.
Fourth is the process of regulation. This may seem obvious, but regulation is often framed as being at odds with innovation. The WRR firmly states that history unequivocally shows that regulation plays an important role when it comes to public acceptance and wide use of technologies. It is easy to imagine that more people felt comfortable to drive a car once the seatbelt, driving license and speed limits came into existence. Moreover, as also has been pointed out elsewhere (Kop, 2021a: 13), regulation involves more than hard law instruments. Especially in the early stages of development and implication of technology, the WRR argues that it is key to use flexible regulatory instruments like standards and norms. Such regulagory tools provide guiding frameworks while leaving room for adjustments after gaining more experience.
The last dimension that the WRR identifies is positioning, which deals with the international character of the development and integration of a system technology. Not only do the former four activities have an international component, but there are also issues that inherently take shape within international relations. The WRR specifically points to the meaning of system technologies for the competitiveness and security of countries. History shows that the ongoing development of system technologies has always been an international affair and that attempts to nationalise developments have failed. Also, activities of other states force international actors to respond, for political, economic and security reasons.
4 Anticipatory Strategies for Guiding Quantum Technology
In this section, I elaborate on the five dimensions of technosocietal co-evolution in the context of quantum technology. I explore the challenges that lie ahead in each dimension (i–iv), and by doing so, I show how we can start preparing society for quantum technology and vice versa. This article departs from the assumption that quantum technology will, in the years to come, translate into applications that will advance many (research) fields, mostly by extending our measuring and computing powers. If quantum technology has the potential to make a significant impact on diverse domains, we are currently in a position to anticipate these developments. ‘Anticipating’ here refers to facilitating the development of real-world applications that could positively contribute to society while taking preparatory actions to (be later in the position to) avert harmful uses and other risks. Throughout the analysis in this section, frequent references will be made to our experiences with AI as a relevant source of illustration and inspiration, being the latest and most adjacent system technology.
Beforehand, it is important to stress that the five dimensions of technosocietal co-evolution should be understood as timeless and structural aspects of this process. The (relative) relevance of these dimensions and the challenges they encompass are likely to change over time as the technology matures and can differ between countries. Which aspects need the most attention, in what form and from whom, is a continuous question. This means that at this stage, not all dimensions will require action to the same extent nor do the challenges for the more mature branch of quantum technology necessarily have to be the same for the foetal quantum information technologies. I will discuss all five dimensions and explore the issues that they shed light on in the context of quantum technology. In doing so, my main aim is to create awareness about the different aspects of an anticipatory strategy, but I will also reflect upon the question to what extent actions seem opportune in the current phase.
4.1 Demystification: Against Mythmaking
Demystification concerns countering unrealistic ideas about technology and enhancing general knowledge and skills. The WRR describes how system technologies in the past have always been accompanied by high expectations as well as fears. The novelty of their character and capacities often gives rise to mystification. We see this happening with AI being shrouded in a cloud of mythical ideas about its abilities. On the one hand, AI is welcomed as an all-purpose solution (elsewhere referred to as ‘technosolutionism’ (Morozov, 2013) or ‘techchauvinism’ (Broussard, 2019)), blinded by overestimating the functioning of AI and underestimating the complexity of social issues. On the other hand, AI is depicted as an artificial force with the same properties as humans, like having an autonomous will and flexible common sense. This image gives rise to the assumption of threats that are not in line with the technological reality. The WRR points out that both reflexes are counterproductive and could lead to either a total decline of a technology or naive and risky deployment. Responsible use of a system technology implies that the technology is being used in the first place, and that people have the knowledge to value the technology correctly. Both require a basic understanding of how technology works. In the case of AI, the WRR recommends stimulating what they call ‘AI wisdom’, a level of literacy that enables people to assess media coverage about AI and develop a sense of the kind of problems AI can solve.
When looking at the case of quantum technology, we certainly see a dynamic of mystification, framing it as producing magical machines that will solve all the problems we run into with our classical methods and devices, when in fact, they promise to provide an advantage for a special class of problems. Hyping quantum technology both annoys and benefits researchers in the field. They see their work being misinterpreted with the risk of unrealistic expectations, which could eventually lead to a ‘quantum winter’Footnote 9 just like the AI winter set in after high hopes were not realised. On the other hand, research institutions as well as technology companies thrive by a belief in great opportunities and a sense of urgency when this translates into funding and sells, respectively. So, there is an incentive for feeding – or at least not debunking – a quantum hype. Especially in the case of quantum technology, journalists, policymakers and the public at large seem highly susceptible to overinterpretations of the potential of this technology as its complexity makes it hard for non-specialists to independently and accurately assess the field. Few people will know what quantum mechanics entails, let alone that it can be used to develop new technologies. Although there may be some familiarity with the word ‘quantum’, the knowledge among the majority of the public about quantum technology remains low (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), 2018).
Unrealistic expectations of the potential and time path of quantum technology could not only lead to a quantum winter but could also make us focus on the wrong kind of questions at the cost of issues that do need our attention at this stage. It is thus important to be alert to myths (in the making) when it comes to quantum technology. Since it tends to be hard to alter negative beliefs once they have been formed, it seems prudent to invest in the knowledge of the general public about quantum technology and its potential applications. This does not mean that people should understand exactly how quantum technology works and which challenges lie ahead. We also do not know exactly how our car, computer or even electricity works, but we do have a good sense of the kind of things these technologies can do and what they cannot. In the same vein, we should work towards a basic, pragmatic understanding of quantum technology. Investing in general awareness of quantum technology and ‘an intermediate level of explanation’ about its current and potential applications would facilitate non-specialists to assess claims of progress and to start thinking about the implications for their field (Ezratty, 2022).
In addition to investments in awareness and basic knowledge, it is crucial to understand the associative power of words in the communication about quantum technology. The use of words like ‘Frankenfoods’ in relation to GMO technology or ‘understanding’, ‘reasoning’ and even ‘intelligence’ in the context of AI can invoke strong associations that trouble our understanding of what these technologies actually amount to – potentially creating anti-sentiments or a tech bubble. On the contrary, creating awareness and a basic understanding can create trust. Everybody communicating about quantum technology, the research community included, should reflect on the image that their words appeal to, and we should collectively work towards a deliberate vocabulary from the beginning.
4.2 Contextualisation: An Ecosystem Approach
The term ‘system’ in ‘system technology’ refers not only to the systemic impact on society but also to its functioning within a system of people and complementary technologies. In the case of autonomous vehicles, it is often heard that the technology is not advanced enough to function in real life yet. However, when taking a step back from the technology itself and paying attention to its context, it becomes clear that adjustments in the ecosystem could significantly enhance the performance of a technology. Drawing on the example of autonomous vehicles, adjusting road signs so that they can easily be read by the car’s system, the presence of 5G, and providing additional training to the driver can all contribute to the self-driving car’s improved performance. This strategy of ‘enveloping’, as introduced by Floridi (2014) within the field of ICT, is crucial for the development of system technologies in general. Designing the ‘envelope’ that surrounds a technology is as important as designing the technology itself. According to the WRR, this facilitating envelope includes not only the technological ecosystem but also the social ecosystem (WRR, 2021: 148–150). Whether technology will actually work in practice highly depends on people’s behaviour and skills on the microlevel and the organisation of processes and strategies on the macrolevel.
Because the real-world applications of quantum technology are limited and QIT is not close to that, the need to invest in the facilitating socio-technical ecosystem may not feel urgent. However, creating such an environment takes time. It takes time to equip a workforce and to make preparations to embed quantum technology applications into existing organisation structures. Even for experienced IT specialists and technology companies, quantum technology can be a very complex domain. Besides the organisational readiness, it is both key and challenging to organise the supporting technologies that well-functioning quantum applications depend on, such as conventional computers, high-end hardware and cloud services. Some expect, for example, that quantum computing is most likely to be brought to end-users as a cloud service (Möller & Vuik, 2017; Hoofnagle & Garfinkel, 2022). The ‘quantum computing envelope’ in that case thus includes the presence of sufficient cloud capacities.
Staying with the example of the quantum computer, we see how its development and its eventual application are dependent on performances elsewhere. Like the classical computer depends on the chip industry, quantum computers depend on the availability and quality of quantum chips. At the moment, there are several candidates for operating qubits that all require different kinds of chips. In addition to such hardware, the functioning of quantum computers relies on special software and efficient algorithms. Without quantum algorithms that can reduce the time required to solve a computational problem by parallelised operations, the hotly pursued quantum advantage remains out of our league. Over the last few years, researchers have been diligently working on new quantum algorithms that can exhibit significant computational speedup. Their efforts resulted in an impressive increase in the number of quantum algorithms, from a few in the 1990s to hundreds of them today. Most notable examples of today’s quantum algorithms, however, are based on techniques already used in the early days.Footnote 10 The pursuit of a quantum advantage in the field of computing will require continuing investments in the development of quantum algorithms.Footnote 11 In the case of quantum sensors, it is photonic technologies and especially lasers that are crucial for its functioning. Already today, there is a shortage of eligible lasers, while the only demanders are currently research groups. When we look at the infrastructural requirements, we see that a network of glass fibre lines is key to the realisation of quantum communication, as a quantum internet connection requires qubits to be entangled remotely via a dedicated glass fibre.
The imperative of contextualisation is to strategically invest in an enabling context that allows quantum technologies to function in a real-world setting – acknowledging all the challenges that quantum technology, and especially QIT, faces even in a perfect setting. As quantum technology is in its early stages, we might not have a full understanding of the elements and challenges of the socio-technical ecosystem that supports its (proper) functioning. However, the main message here is that the success of quantum technology only partly depends upon quantum technology itself. We should, therefore, not isolate quantum technologies in academic, policy and public debates, but instead, also take its social and technical context into consideration.
4.3 Engagement: Democratising Technology
The WRR argues that engagement is about making technical development a dialogue, instead of a technical monologue. The reasoning behind this imperative is that without including other disciplines and stakeholders, technology is designed from a limited perspective on the consequences. Moreover, the development process is likely to follow the interests of the developing parties, enlarging the risk of uneven distribution of benefits and risks, and consolidating power relations (De Wolf, 2017).Footnote 12 In the case of quantum technology, much of the research is done by academia, but companies, governments and public organisations also invest heavily. Due to the fact that quantum research and development is highly complex and expensive, there is a risk that the knowledge and application of QIT will be only accessible to a small number of players (Hoofnagle & Garfinkel, 2022). The small elite that is developing quantum technology makes it inherently political. As has been widely agreed upon, choices in the design and purpose of technology are never neutral.Footnote 13 This makes technological innovation a social practice that should not be dominated by technicians and the powerful exclusively. This is especially the case when recalling the earlier mentioned issue of closure, which may make it impossible to adjust the design of technology from a certain point on. Van den Hoven (2014) even argues that it is particularly problematic to disregard ethical reflection within the first stage of technological development, as innovation of technical systems has its ‘own development trajectories, investment cycles and path dependencies’ (Van den Hoven, 2014: 6).
The WRR adds to this perspective that it is important to also engage civil society in the development of new technologies. While the media can contribute to what has been called mystification, journalists and broader interest groups can also contribute to scrutinising a technology, representing a variety of values and stakes. Including these groups democratises the development of technology. With regard to the potential of quantum technology, Hoofnagle and Garfinkel (2022: 376) likewise argue that ‘civic society needs to embark now on a fact-based, science-based discussion of these capabilities and appropriate mechanisms for controlling them.’ Currently, the most direct threats of quantum technology seem to concern privacy and security. Quantum sensing enlarges the possibilities for surveillance (Hoofnagle & Garfinkel, 2022: 460), and quantum communication promises a breakdown of public-key cryptography (De Wolf, 2017; Ezratty, 2022; Möller & Vuik, 2017) with serious consequences for online security. It is necessary to engage other disciplines and stakeholders to fully understand these and other risks and adequately address them. The fact that it may be hard to imagine whose interests will be affected how at this stage of development could only be an extra reason to invite other academic disciplines to reflect upon the development of quantum technology and to include them in an interdisciplinary process of innovation. When it comes to civil society, stimulating the general knowledge about the topic will prepare and equip them to scrutinise quantum applications when these will find their way into practice. Note that the dimension of demystification and engagement are entangled here.
4.4 Regulation: Learning by Doing
Regulation, in a broad sense, is about the development of frameworks that provide both space and limits for the deployment of technology. The ‘Collingridge dilemma’ describes the difficulty of this process, stating that regulation of a technology usually comes either too early or too late. In an early phase, a knowledge problem occurs: Although it may well be possible to take measures and proactively steer a technology, we would not know to what direction, as its effects are still unknown. At a later stage, however, a power problem occurs: The impacts of the technology may now be known, but there are fewer options to exercise control over its design and deployment. The struggle to regulate the internet in its current state provides a good example of this problem. Considering quantum technology, and QIT in particular, it could reasonably be argued that it indeed is too early for specific regulation as it is not yet clear how these technologies will actually be used. The dimension of regulation will probably become more relevant as quantum technology matures. However, to avoid the other side of the dilemma, i.e. being too late, we should at this stage start exploring how we can enable ourselves to quickly and effectively respond to future developments.
A common approach to the uncertainty about risks and future developments of new technologies is the ‘precautionary principle’ (Andorno, 2004; COMEST, 2005). However, opinions are divided on its effectiveness, stating that it leads to a policy that is either too restrictive or not strong enough to prevent harm (e.g. Sunstein, 2003; Sandin et al., 2002). In the context of AI, the WRR proposes to broaden our perspective on what regulation amounts to and differentiates several levels for a regulatory approach (WRR, 2021: 293–343). Regulation can, for example, apply to the technology itself, its use or to the broader principles of the digital society. In an early stage, it is often difficult to regulate a technology as well as its use because of the knowledge problem. However, efforts on a higher level may suffer less from this problem. When it comes to quantum technology, it seems opportune to include quantum technology from now on in debates, agendas and action plans on broader technology policy and the digital society. This may seem gratuitous, but it is not obvious. The EU’s draft Artificial Intelligence Act (AIA), for example, does not pay explicit attention to quantum computing, albeit it being a relevant technology for the future of AI. For the sake of their effectiveness and robustness, such proposals should anticipate the implications of quantum technology. Furthermore, exploring different future scenarios could help envision and navigate to a desirable future that includes the use of quantum technology.
At this stage, it is explored how existing regulations and legislations apply to quantum technology. In particular, the implications for IP law and standardisation are currently investigated (Kop, 2020, 2021b). In addition, there is a starting discussion about the implications of quantum communication technology for privacy regulation due to its potential to break current cryptography methods (Bruno & Spano, 2021) and the related issue of post-quantum cryptography standardisation (Kan & Une, 2021). In the near term, applications of quantum sensing and the power position of the institutions deploying them, by aggregating information about people, could also become an important issue in debates about the implications of quantum technology for privacy (Hoofnagle & Garfinkel, 2022: 429). Again, an engaged discussion about how we want to use quantum technology in society from the start is key, as this could prevent technologies like quantum sensing from developing in such a way that it primarily becomes a tool for the powerful. On top of public debate and stakeholder engagement, governments in specific have a role to play here. Besides regulation, states can actively direct the development of technologies driven by public values and societal benefits (e.g. SDGs) by creating markets using procurement instruments (Mazzucato, 2011: 75).
An in-depth analysis of specific issues in quantum regulation is beyond the scope of this paper. Here, the aim is to capitalise on our experience with previous system technologies and aim to provide a more high-over strategy for addressing the challenge of regulating a technology that is both novel and in progress. As there is one thing that Collingride’s dilemma and the history of system technologies teach us, it is that we need space and time to learn about the kind of regulation that is required. In response to the uncertainty about future developments and potential risks of quantum technology, it seems opportune to focus on flexible regulatory instruments like soft law and regulatory sandboxes at this stage. This is in line with Kop (2020: 1) stating that quantum technology asks for ‘an agile legislative system that can adapt quickly to changing circumstances and societal needs’. Addressing the knowledge problem that comes with real-world applications of especially QIT, flexible instruments should be used for their regulation, as these provide insight into potential regulatory needs or challenges and can be developed and adjusted relatively quickly.
4.5 Positioning: Developing Quantum Diplomacy
As aforesaid, system technologies have an explicit international dimension. Not only is research and development characterised by international collaboration, connection and competition, but system technologies are also intertwined with the issues of national competitiveness and security. A state’s activities regarding a specific system technology, therefore, have implications for its positioning in relation to others. This international dynamic is often framed as a race between countries. With respect to quantum technology, the idea of a global race is present, too, with companies like Google and IBM publicly competing on the number of qubits and governments proudly announcing national investments. The WRR, however, argues that this race frame is inadequate and even harmful, as it leads to strategies that are doomed to fail (WRR, 2021: 356). The idea of a race is flawed as there is no specific goal – as there was during the ‘space race’, when nations competed to put the first man on the moon – hence, there will never be one winner. Rather than individually pursuing the same, it seems strategically smart from a competitiveness perspective to focus on a specific type of quantum technology, application domain or on regulation activities. This is especially true for countries that can never equal the activities of technological superpowers like the USA and China.
As the defence industry is an important driver behind the development of quantum technology, progress in the field has implications for the warfare domain and hence, for national security (Krelina, 2021). Preparing society for quantum technology, therefore, also requires awareness of the national security implications of nations’ activities in this field. Considering competitiveness, it is also important to create partnerships and international collaboration as both innovation and regulation exceed national borders. In the research domain, the community has always been internationally oriented due to the highly specialised character of the field. In addition, there are new international initiatives to join research forces, like the EU’s Quantum Technologies Flagship (European Commission, n.d.-b). Such strategic partnerships should also be explored in the context of international quantum regulation. Here, the issue of competitiveness blends in with the issue of national security. Both regarding the issue of competitiveness and national security, the WRR emphasises the role of international technological standards and considers the formulation of standards and norms as an important guiding activity for the development of new technologies and their applications. This is also relevant to quantum technology: International standards and norms will guide innovation in the years to come and offer an effective way of asserting values and principles.
In the same vein, Kop (2021c) also argues that democratic countries should form a value-based ‘Strategic Tech Alliance’. According to Kop, we need to acknowledge the need for regulatory cooperation to protect common economic interests as well as our democratic values. As he formulates it, ‘the race for AI and quantum dominance isn’t just a competition in technology and market power. It is as much competition in norms, standards, principles, and values’ (Kop, 2021c: 13). Further developments in the field of quantum technology will highlight the importance of international collaboration. States should be aware of the strategic implications of quantum technology (Hoofnagle & Garfinkel, 2022; Der Derian & Wendt, 2020) and should therefore start with what can be called ‘quantum diplomacy’: Actively managing international relations with other states and international organisations with regard to the development, trade, and international regulation of quantum technology.
5 Conclusion and Discussion
Quantum technology promises to advance our capacities to acquire, process and transmit information. In doing so, it potentially has implications for nearly all domains in society. Therefore, quantum technology is considered to be a system technology in the making: A technology whose impact crosses sectors and will eventually play a role throughout society. In order to anticipate the future role of quantum technology and the ethical, legal, social and policy implications that come with it, we should start to prepare society for this new system technology.
In this article, I propose an anticipatory strategy to prepare society for quantum technology and vice versa. I do so by drawing on the framework that the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) developed for embedding system technologies into society. Based on historical lessons from our experience with earlier system technologies, the article sketches a high-level roadmap for anticipating an unknown technological future.
The proposed anticipatory strategy has five dimensions with specific challenges to address in a continual process of shaping technology and society in tandem: (1) countering unrealistic perceptions (demystification), (2) investing in a facilitating socio-technical environment (contextualisation), (3) engaging stakeholders and civil society (engagement), (4) creating flexible frameworks (regulation) (5) and developing international ‘quantum diplomacy’ (positioning). This roadmap is exploratory and should be taken as a starting point for a discussion about the structural and long-term processes that will guide the co-evolution of quantum technology and society. Future research is encouraged to elaborate on the challenges within these dimensions and on what is needed to adequately address them.
The promise of quantum technology to advance many areas in science and society, and the fact that this technology is still in its infancy, offers an opportunity to anticipate the leap that quantum technology will take from the confines of the lab to the real world. At that moment, we better be at the next train station.
In 2019, Google scientist claimed to have achieved quantum supremacy, providing evidence that their quantum computer ‘Sycamore’ is able to solve problems that are impossible to calculate classically (Arute et al., 2019).
Among them are the governments of the USA (Subcommittee on quantum information science, 2021), Canada (Sussman et al., 2019), China (Qiang et al., 2019), Japan (Yamamoto, 2019), South-Korea (Shim, 5 February 2019), Taiwan (Huang, 17 December 2020), India (Department of Science and Technology, n.d.), Russia (Schiermeier, 17 December 2019), the UK (UK Research and Innovation, 23 March 2015), Germany (Reuters, 11 May 2021), France (Le Monde & AFP, 21 January 2021), the Netherlands (QuTech, 9 April 2021) and the EU (Gibney, 2017), who all invested or announced investments in quantum science and technology.
In specific, quantum computers are, without proof however, believed to be able to solve a class of mathematical problems that the best classical computers cannot solve (quick enough). These so-called NP problems have no obvious structure, and no solution has been found to them yet. A famous example of this class is the travelling salesman problem.
When the car was first introduced, people would consider it to be a carriage without a horse, thereby not acknowledging the radically new characteristics of the automobile.
BQP stands for ‘bounded-error quantum polynomial time’, a class of computational problems that can be solved by quantum computers in polynomial time.
The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) is an independent strategic advisory body for government policy in the Netherlands. The council advises the Dutch government and Parliament on long-term strategic issues that are of great importance to society. The WRR provides science-based advice aimed at opening new perspectives and directions, changing problem definitions, setting new policy goals, investigating new resources for problem-solving, and enriching the public debate. In 2021, the WRR presented its advisory report ‘Mission AI. The New System Technology’. A summary of the report is available in English online at https://english.wrr.nl/publications/reports/2021/11/11/summary-mission-ai. The WRR expects to publish the full report in English by the end of 2022.
For an example of such a list-driven approach to the impact of quantum technology, see the World Economic Forum report ‘Quantum Computing Governance Principles’ (World Economic Forum, 2022).
In the case of AI, winters emerged due to research stagnation and the lack of successful applications. Disappointing results gave rise to an overall demoralisation concerning the potential of AI. In the case of quantum technology, the underlying quantum theory solidly grounds the field as it has proven to excellently describe physics at the micro-scale. In other words, quantum mechanics is not some fashionable theory. Although progress in the field of quantum technology has been both impressive and steady for the last years, the risk of a quantum winter should not be dismissed because the field could lose funding and interest when it could not live up to the expectations quick enough.
The most prominent classes of algorithms that have shown to be able to provide an advantage over classical algorithms are exemplified by two famous quantum algorithms dating from the 1990s: Shor’s factoring algorithm (1994) and Grover’s searching algorithm (1996). More recently, other techniques and hybrid methods that combine classical and quantum approaches have started to become more popular.
The same statement is made by Gill et al. (2022).
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The author is grateful to Ivo Knottnerus and Julia Rijssenbeek for valuable comments on an earlier version of this article, and to Tessel van Oirsouw for excellent editorial support.
The author formerly worked as a researcher at the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). She is one of the authors of the official advisory report for the Dutch government about artificial intelligence that appeared in December 2022. Throughout this article, references are made to this report. The author wrote the current article in a personal capacity and did not represent any organisation nor did she receive funding or have any other competing interests to declare.
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de Jong, E. Own the Unknown: An Anticipatory Approach to Prepare Society for the Quantum Age. DISO 1, 15 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s44206-022-00020-4