Once quantum technologies have matured, it will be too late to prevent all possible harms. It is for this reason that we encourage organisations to adopt an ethics-first mindset towards quantum development — an operating approach that continuously embeds RRI into technology life cycles. However, it can be difficult for business leaders to understand what an ethics-first mindset means for their day-to-day activities. To make it easy, we have identified three high-level behaviours to embody in your quantum journey that will allow you to manifest this mindset and forge an ethical future for these technologies.
To be sure of enabling an ethical future for the quantum ecosystem, business and technology leaders need to act now. In the past, opportunities were missed to develop ethical guidelines as new technologies were emerging. This has allowed significant issues to materialise, from racist facial recognition algorithms to discriminatory curriculum vitae-screening tools. A great deal of societal harm, reputational damage, and lost opportunity costs associated with big data and AI may have been mitigated had organisations collectively adopted an ethics-first mindset.²¹ Business leaders owe it to their clients, colleagues and broader society to adopt a more proactive position with quantum.
Being proactive can take many forms. Chief technology officers can start by having discussions with senior leadership and technology teams about how quantum technologies might fit into the organisation’s long-term strategy, and road map. Similarly, teams can adapt and refine existing governance policies and processes for cybersecurity, data, and AI, or develop new ones as preparation for a quantum transition. For example, your business could carry out an internal ethical-AI audit to ensure that any work on quantum is built upon a robust, underlying governance infrastructure and culture. To further enhance these efforts, chief risk officers should create a new registry to ensure centralised tracking of quantum risks, as the technologies mature.
Human resources (HR) leaders can also develop a plan of how to attract, retain and upskill quantum talent, which includes those well-versed in the technical aspects of quantum mechanics, as well as individuals with socio-technical expertise in the ethics of emerging technologies. Finally, businesses can stay engaged with broader industry and academic communities on issues related to quantum governance. Conversations on this front are already happening, as evidenced by the World Economic Forum’s recent publication on the topic.²²
Too often, it seems that companies, and public sector bodies pursue disruptive technology for technology’s sake without fully accounting for the associated economic, operational and reputational risks. This can lead to situations where investment in a technical solution is not always merited, as a non-technical solution may provide a simpler, more cost-effective way to satisfy business requirements. In addition, it may lead to situations where a technical solution is used as an inadequate substitute for remediating broader, systemic injustices.
A frequently cited example of this is COMPAS — an AI-enabled risk assessment tool that was adopted by several US courts to predict the likelihood of recidivism to guide judicial decision-making (for example, pre-trial releases and sentencing). As reported by ProPublica, the tool and process through which COMPAS was implemented was flawed. It disproportionately ranked African American individuals that did not reoffend as high-risk for recidivism, when compared with their white counterparts and, therefore, contributed to marginalisation already facing the black community in the American criminal justice system.²³
The supposed idea behind COMPAS’ adoption was that it would improve the quality of judicial decisions made by courts. However, the solution was not proportional to the problem. Courts adopted a technical solution as a catchall to a nontechnical problem and ultimately, generated the very unfairness that they sought to avoid.