We are seeing a number of efforts to examine the topic of quantum computing ethics. Although this is commendable, our view is that guidelines for quantum computing ethics need to be built upon a strong platform of classical computing ethics. And classical computing ethics are a mess right now! We don’t think efforts to develop quantum computing ethical standards will make any progress until the classical computing side is fixed first. It would be like trying to build a new second story addition on top of a dilapidated single story house that has been neglected for many years.  

There are very significant issues in classical computing ethics that need attention including a few examples shown in this list below:

  • Update to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996
  • Computer Crime
  • Ethical Use of Facial Recognition
  • Data Privacy Protection
  • Ethical Use of Social Media
  • Intellectual Property Protection
  • Misinformation and Deep Fakes

Our feeling is that most, if not all, of the potential ethical issues that can arise with quantum computing will be the same as those existing in classical. Certainly a quantum computer may be able to do some functions more accurately or faster, but we do not think the differences will be drastic enough to substantially change the ethical considerations. For example, we can see how quantum computing might someday make facial recognition a little more accurate than doing it classically, but we can’t see how the ethical issues and the possible solutions will be any different.

So you might ask, “What about the potential to break the RSA encryption algorithm using Shor’s algorithm to factor a large number with a future quantum computer?” We see this as more of an engineering and operational issue.  If someone passes a law saying “Thou Shalt Not Run Shor’s Algorithm” we think the bad guys will ignore it. And they certainly won’t observe any guidelines that have been written down in a white paper!

There is, of course, substantial activity underway in algorithm development, standards activity, device construction and other research to develop quantum resistant alternatives to the current methods of public key distribution. And there will certainly be a massive upgrade over the next twenty years to our communications infrastructure to adopt these technologies. But this is more a matter of execution rather than proclaiming what is right or wrong.

We are always a proponent of first things first. So if you are concerned about computing ethics, our advice is to spend your time and effort by first working to get the classical side fixed. Not only will that be more productive, but if there are any quantum specific ethical issues that come up in the future, you will be better equipped to address it. You will have had the experience with working on the classical issues first and the lessons learned there will make resolving the quantum issues faster and easier.

September 18, 2021