Anna Knörr and Rodrigo Bravo, co-founders of the Quantum Ethics Project

Anna Knörr and Rodrigo Bravo, co-founders of the Quantum Ethics Project, are interviewed by Yuval Boger. They discuss the project’s origins in addressing the ethical implications of quantum technologies and explore the unique ethical challenges that quantum technologies pose, including issues related to dual-use applications and responsible research. They touch on the potential for international cooperation in quantum ethics,  Anna’s and Rodrigo’s hopes for a future where ethical considerations are integrated into the development of quantum technology.

Full Transcript

Yuval Boger: Hello Anna, hello Rodrigo. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Anna Knörr: It’s our pleasure.

Rodrigo Bravo: Yeah, thank you for having us, Yuval.

Yuval: So who are you and what do you do?

Anna: Well, I can go first, Rodrigo. So hello everyone, I’m Anna. I just finished my master’s at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo Canada during which I specialized in quantum materials and quantum computing. Today is actually my second day at SPEED2ZEERO in Zurich. I’m switching fields for one year, diving more into climate and energy research. Apart from that, I’m also part of the QEP, the quantum ethics project. There, I’ve just been organizing all kinds of events over the past year, formally in the role of outreach lead.

Rodrigo: Yeah, I’m Rodrigo. I am currently at Harvard University. I’m doing my PhD in physics, in the topics of quantum machine learning and quantum simulation. I’m also doing a secondary field concentration in science, technology, and society studies, where I study more of the ethics and geopolitics of quantum technologies in general. I am one of the co-founders of the Quantum Ethics Project, and I am also the research lead, where I lead research on ethical and political aspects of quantum technologies.

Yuval: So, let’s talk about the quantum ethics project. How did it get started? And what are the goals of the project?

Rodrigo: Right. So it was started in 2021 by Joan Arrow, the CEO of the project. I was brought in in 2022 when Joan was starting to build a network of collaborators that she wanted to chat with. First, it was just a group of four of us chatting once a week about what we thought quantum ethics should be. And it started because all of us in our respective academic programs, PhDs and masters, we started to notice that there was a missing conversation of what it means to bring quantum to the world, whose world is, and for what purpose and for whose benefit. So we started from that. The goal is to provide a space for people to attend to the social, political, ethical, and economic questions of the technologies, either through technical research or social science research, but also through education and engagement in general.

Anna: Yeah, I’d second what Rodrigo said. We’ve been very busy gathering all these people up into a big Discord server. That’s kind of the main home where the QEP lives currently, in addition to some in-person hubs in Waterloo, in Boston, in Karlsruhe and in Boulder. Apart from these internal discussions, we’ve been hosting a fair number of lectures and seminars, partnering with other organizations. So, for example, we’ve held those events at Perimeter, especially for their PSI Masters program. We’ve held workshops for Qubit by Qubit. We’ve produced some video content for Girls in Quantum. That was very fun! And there’s lots more to share.

Yuval: When I look at quantum ethics, some of the ethical questions that come up seem very, very similar to other new technologies. So, for instance, on AI, people say, well, there’s going to be a group of nations that have access to this technology and those that do not, and is that fair? The same could be said for vaccine development, right? There’s a group of people that have access to the vaccine earlier than others because maybe they live in more developed countries or they happen to have a pharma company located there. How is quantum ethics different than the ethical concerns of other new technologies?

Rodrigo: This is a fantastic question and one that we actually receive a lot. The answer is some of it is different, and some of it is very similar. As you pointed out, this issue of unequal distribution and unequal development, particularly in the world that we are in today, where there are tensions between Western and Eastern nations, is one of the problems that we definitely attend to, not only through quantum but through other technologies such as AI, semiconductors, et cetera.

In some ways, quantum is an example of how those questions must be asked in every emerging technology. And quantum does provide some unique opportunities in that regard, because it is developing a little slower. And because of that, we can get very early on into the conversation and start shaping the technology in different ways than we did with AI or we have done with semiconductors, et cetera.

I think there are some differences, of course. I don’t think that we’ve had other technology that can break encryption for a long time. And so in that sense, that is unique. There are other unique aspects of quantum. It’s too early to tell what the most dangerous or impactful applications will be. I think at this point, we should keep an eye open for those differences but also leverage the similarities and use our knowledge from those fields that have already been explored.

Yuval: And Anna, maybe you can give an example of something that is specific to quantum in terms of the ethical framework?

Anna: I can take one from our community blog that we started recently. Ethics comes with the stage at which a technology is. Currently, the people who are most in contact with quantum are the researchers themselves. So a lot of discussion revolves around scientific conduct, hype, etcetera. You can go and check out a blog post by Shawn Skelton that really digs into a recent example of quantum research that overstates the power of quantum versus classical methods. I think this is very dominant, perhaps more dominant than it is in AI, because in AI, for sure, we have so many applications that affect people’s daily lives who aren’t researchers yet. So I think, at least from my perspective, the emphasis of the conversation lies elsewhere. Of course, the quantum conversation may shift focus in the future as applications also become more real.

You asked me about a specific difference, and as Rodrigo said, there are specific similarities and differences. In fact, I’d say that at the QEP, we started off with that question of wanting to carve out, what really is different in quantum ethics? What can we learn from AI ethics? What can we adapt? But I think we’ve shifted to emphasizing that it’s not so much a list of topics. If it is, then it’s an evolving list of topics. We want ethics to be an active reflection process that should come with the development of any technology.

Rodrigo: And on the technical side, quantum is going to overlap with AI, with classical hardware, with nanotechnology, and with all kinds of other technologies. And so I think it’s very natural for the ethics to overlap as well. And maybe to add to Anna just very briefly, I really like this example that she gave of quantum computation. Those promise to revolutionize the way that we do computation. And that is very unique in this case. Now we should always be asking where these claims are being made and under what politics. Are these politics of some exclusionary stripe from academics or industry? Or is it coming more from the point of view that there is something here that is very different, that is very innovative, and that we should be looking out for? So where in the spectrum do we land on this politics when we ask what is properly quantum or not? It is a very important question. And so just to say that, yes, there are unique differences against, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the reflection of why we are asking, whether it’s unique or not.

Yuval: I can understand the research’s implications, but let’s assume I’m the CEO of a company that’s working in quantum technology. If I’m working in other areas, maybe legal or regulatory issues aside, I can put ethical limits on the use of my product. So I can say I’m an internet service provider, I’m willing to put a store for clothing, but you’re not going to be able to use my internet service for human trafficking, for instance. But in the quantum field, other than sort of the general interest, what is the implication for someone running a quantum company?

Anna: Well, I think perhaps the simple answer, at least from my non-CEO perspective, is that it’s up to you to make that decision. I mean, you have your values; you grow up in a society with certain values, and it’s up to you to make those decisions and shape where the applications go.

Rodrigo: Right, so when we’re talking about, I really like this example that you gave of, you can use my internet server for certain things and not others. This is a conversation that we see often in science and technology studies. It goes under the name of dual use. I mean, what are the uses that were given to a technology, and what uses do we not want to give to a technology? In the case of quantum, I mean, there are obvious dual-use cases. We can use a computer for cryptographic purposes, which can be either defensive or offensive. And there seems to be a problematization of quantum computing developed by military agents, even at the industrial level. One thing that is less problematized, for example, sometimes is the promise of chemistry, the fact that we can help in the development of better drugs, or things like this. You can use it for drugs that cure diseases, or you can use it for toxins. So, there has to be constant checks and balances when somebody is using the technology. What are they using it for? What is their goal? That’s a conversation that we need to start having at the industry level.

Anna: Another perspective to have on it is that there’s so much talk about public dialogue, engaging the public. On the one hand, that’s very difficult because there are so many emerging technologies, and I don’t think that if you’re someone in the public who doesn’t work with any of these, you then want to go and learn the details of every one of them. You don’t want to go and study quantum and AI and all of these topics. I don’t think that technical education is necessarily the way forward with public dialogue, at least not the only route. And perhaps an easier way to address the complexity of emerging technology together with the need for public dialogue, is engaging people in the question of what we apply it to and getting their feedback on that aspect of quantum.

Yuval: In some areas, such as health, there are opportunities and bodies that work with many countries to create international cooperation. So the World Health Organization, for instance, is very helpful in identifying pandemics, in promoting best practices or sometimes distributing medicine to countries that perhaps don’t have their own supply. Do you see an opportunity for a world quantum organization?

Anna: True, I read that suggestion in your recent post. I thought that was quite interesting. I think it reminded me very much of a discussion I had with some people at IEEE Ethics this year in Chicago. I’m a physicist by training, and at IEEE it was more a collection of engineers. And I was very struck that they have this professional organization that has a code of ethics. So it’s part of their professional identity to think that, if I build this bridge, I’m the first person to walk across the bridge, this kind of mentality. And so I was really wondering whether it would be possible, you know, in addition to building the quantum workforce, to also build a professional association that embodies that spirit about caring about not just the technical aspects but those other questions, too. So perhaps that’s the most connected thought I’ve had to your world quantum organization.

Rodrigo: I second, and I think more than an opportunity, I think it’s a necessity that we should have some kind of overarching way of negotiating what we want to do with quantum and how do we develop it. Right now, the world is split in quantum. There are alliances that are US-centric through the National Quantum Initiative Act. There are nine countries that are allied with the United States, mostly looking like Western countries. Japan is also included. And then there is the BRICS Alliance, which is China, Russia, South Africa, Brazil, And also there’s Austria, which is kind of playing a role in the middle since it has very high affiliations with China, but the United States is pressuring it to end its association with China. So the world is split into two, and now there’s an arms race, right? The US wants to develop these things before China, and China wants to develop them first. It would be bad news for everybody if one of us got there first because it would mean that we would be breaking not only the other person’s encrypted systems but we would also be endangering our own before we switch to new encryptions.

So, for me, I think, yes, there is a lot of room, opportunity, and need for diplomatic conversations, science diplomacy. We can do better than we did with nuclear weapons; I am sure that we can. It’s also a matter of whose world we are considering. I mean, if we’re gonna make a world organization, are we gonna put it, say that it’s gonna be under some democratic ideals that are going to be favoring democracies in the West? ‘Cause then that’s unstable, especially if we have China participating. And to be clear, China has some democratic processes but is not completely authoritative, and the United States has some authoritative processes, and it’s not completely democratic.

Yuval: I can see how ethics discussions in universities happen in liberal arts colleges. Do you also see them happening in higher education organizations that are primarily technological? I mean, Rodrigo, you are at Harvard; you’re next to MIT. For instance, is there an ethics activity at MIT with regard to such new technologies?

Rodrigo: Absolutely. I mean, let’s, I mean, MIT has a long history of also attending to these questions with regards to nuclear development and nuclear proliferation, right? The Union of Concerned Scientists, which is an organization that organizes scientists who care about these types of questions, might as well have been called the Union of Concerned Nuclear Scientists, nuclear physicists, right? And it started at MIT, and it’s of course, a block over that way, right next to Harvard. So MIT has had some experience with that, and other organizations have. There’s been a long history of engineering programs incorporating aspects of responsible research and innovation. So, now that being said, I think it’s severely missing, right? I think that we should definitely expand it in the case of emerging technologies, which is a conversation that is starting to happen but still has a long way to go.

Yuval: Anna, I wanted to ask about the quantum ethics project. Do you have sort of the equivalent of the 10 Commandments of ethics or some framework that people could use if they don’t want to dive into the entire books or just the cliff notes of quantum ethics?

Anna: We’ve mentioned a couple of examples, but I think I’ll resist the temptation to give a list because, as we said, I think it’s more about just being conscious while you’re doing your quantum research and maybe even putting those thoughts down on paper. You don’t have to dive into the whole book of quantum ethics, which doesn’t really exist, by the way. You should just look out and see what’s going on. Take this example I gave earlier of overstating quantum solutions versus classical methods. In that particular case, that conversation was certainly going on in many research groups. The quantum ethics project is by far not the only place where these conversations happen. And I think what we’re just trying to do is make those existing conversations more visible and make it part of just your everyday practice as a quantum student, as a quantum professional. And so I don’t think there’s a need to have a canon, let’s say.

Rodrigo: Yeah, I do have some thoughts. So, I was actually interning at IBM Quantum for the summer. And I can tell you that in there, there are some efforts from the team to kind of develop some notion of responsible quantum computing. I think it’s important to start thinking about this at different levels. I think that organizations, large tech organizations, but also startups, and universities should start thinking about their own definition of a responsible quantum. What are their five tenants, or however many? But more than that, I would like to see a sharing of those tenants so that we can compare. I mean, these tenants are going to portray a value system, and value systems are locally defined. Academics will have a very different value system than startups, companies, and even companies in other countries will have a different value system. So I would like to see this conversation starting to emerge because we should treat this as an object of research. And if we do believe in research being open to the public, then we should publish these value systems and see how they can interact with each other; how do we negotiate them? I think we should definitely start developing them. We, the QEP, have some internal things that we abide by, but we would not say to somebody else, “You should abide by this too.”

Yuval: As we get close to the end of our conversation, I wanted to ask from a quantum ethics perspective, what keeps you up at night? Maybe Anna first, and then Rodrigo.

Anna: The question has a slight dark touch to it; I’ll turn it around and make it a little positive because I think, at least for me, being part of the QEP has definitely not just been about problematizing, it’s just been my route of getting involved in interesting questions, e.g. the intersection of quantum and sustainability. So I think if something keeps me up at night. It’s just the excitement right now that I get to get to work at that intersection. I’m looking forward to realizing in detail what it means that energy transitions and climate topics are complex – complex, not just in the quantum sense. You know, we can have our fancy AI quantum algorithms, but then there’s a lot of pre-work that needs to be done, which I’m realizing doesn’t actually sound that exciting. You know, getting the data ready, because if there’s no data, no visualization of, let’s say, the energy grid, flexibility, availability, storage, if you don’t have that data, then there’s nothing to optimize. So yeah, I think I’m just excitedly awake at night – not always, but sometimes – to see what’s ahead in the coming year.

Yuval: And Rodrigo?

Rodrigo: Well, in some ways, being part of the QEP has probably made me sleep better because I’m attending to these questions and I already wanted to do it. But there are things that do keep me up at night in terms of quantum. I think I would definitely hate to see a world that continues to be divided over this technology and where this technology is making that division even sharper. I think that that’s something that definitely keeps me up at night. And the perspective of having all of our encryption rendered useless on a heartbeat is something that I do not want to see. I also don’t want to see it from both ends. They’re from the West, not from the East. I would just hate to see it overall.

Yuval: And last, a hypothetical: if you could have dinner with one of the Quantum or ethics greats, dead or alive, who would that be? Rodrigo, maybe you first and then Anaa

Rodrigo: I would love to have dinner with Jianwei Pan, who has been called the father of quantum in China. He did his Ph.D. in Austria under Anton Zellinger, who got the Nobel Prize last year, and then he moved to China and has been leading a lot of really interesting projects, such as putting satellites in space and linking up quantum networks. I would love to get his opinion on how things look in terms of how he perceives Chinese quantum and how he perceives American quantum. And would love to get to see his perspective.

Anna: I guess I have two answers, maybe one less serious than the other, the makers of quantum mania. It’s very fun to talk about quantum in different contexts, So I think I’d just be very curious how that idea came up and what that process means. They brought quantum to the public for sure. So, how do you turn quantum into a blockbuster? And then maybe on the more serious side, we were organizing a panel discussion for World Quantum Day a few months ago, and we had a contribution from some collaborators at 1Q Ghana. And so I would love to go over there, let’s say to Ghana or another place in Africa, have dinner with one of the leaders of quantum there, and really understand what quantum means in their context.

Yuval: Wonderful. Rodrigo and Anna, thank you so much for joining me today.

Anna: Thank you.

Rodrigo: Thank you, Yuval. Thank you for the invitation.