Often, when new technology arrives, the focus is on its promise. It’s only later that we understand the unintended consequences. As the great-granddaughter of a slave born on a Mississippi plantation, with a long career dedicated to women’s rights and health, I know how important it is to speak up for those whose voices too often go unheard. I’ve seen how the norms established by a privileged few can lead to abuse and gross injustices. Withholding knowledge has distorted access to education, healthcare, and voting rights, to name a few. This should not happen with quantum computing, the next great advance in human knowledge. We need to safeguard its potential power and promise for the good of everyone.
There are few areas of research and engineering more exciting and important than quantum computing (QC) because of its potential to help solve some of humanity’s most intractable challenges. Quantum computers, if built to sufficient scale, will harness immense computational muscle to process large amounts of data exponentially faster than today’s supercomputers. Imagine QC turbo-charging research into therapies and cures for diseases, finding solutions for combating climate change, and advancing the science of food production, mineral exploration, and manufacturing methodologies. This emerging technology will be as revolutionary as gene and atom splitting.
But because QC is still in development, we have much to learn about the extent of its use or the unintended consequences of its power. The same was true with artificial intelligence, and we’re still scrambling to catch up with the ethical challenges of A.I.
For all the hope for QC, as with many new technologies, it could also do harm. QC could be used to unlock most of today’s encryption technology, making stored personal data such as healthcare or financial records, vulnerable. Key national infrastructure, including electricity grids, defense and air traffic control systems could be at risk.
As a co-founder of EeroQ, a quantum computer hardware company, I understand the profound challenges of harnessing the power of QC to fulfill its potential, while at the same time mitigating the ethical risks the technology poses. And, in my decades of experience leading organizations–including as the longest-tenured president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America–I’ve also learned the need for strong governance structures to ensure ethically compliant behaviors by using consensus-driven standards. We have the opportunity and obligation to act now, while quantum technology is not yet broadly commercialized, to build in these necessary governance structures to safeguard its use and accessibility.
For this to happen, multilateral institutions, in partnership with governments, should use their convening powers to bring together representatives from a cross-section of disciplines to develop enforceable ethical standards. Because of QC’s scope, this body should include people from academia–scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and religious leaders– healthcare, finance, corporations (profit and not-for-profit), and, importantly, representatives of civil society.
There is a precedent for this. When researchers began to understand the far-reaching consequences of recombinant DNA, they did something highly unusual, even courageous: they paused their work to explore its social consequences. In 1975 in Asilomar, California, a multi-disciplinary group, including genetics researchers, lawyers, ethicists, and doctors, came together to develop principles on how this new science should be developed in the laboratory. These standards were voluntary and controversial, but Asilomar was a landmark moment because it acknowledged both the good and the harm of a discovery that crossed new frontiers. No one knew exactly what the future would bring. But they did know that recombinant DNA would change that area of research forever.
A far larger global community is involved in QC today, so it will be all the more important to elevate and broaden the discussion about its future. In 2022, the World Economic Forum consulted with a range of people from business, academia, and governments to develop nine principles for QC’s ethical use. Acknowledging the complex and far-reaching applications of the technology, the framework includes educating lawmakers and the public, investing in workforce development, and calling on governments to work together so that those who do not have direct access to the technology will not be left out of its benefits. These are voluntary but could act as a starting point for developing enforceable global and national standards that not only address technology but also people’s rights.
In the U.S., the development of QC is primarily in the hands of the non-government sector, though with the National Quantum Initiative, Congress is finally waking up to the need for serious financial commitments. The governments of China, Canada, and Australia are investing heavily too. In the private sector, Microsoft, AWS, and IBM are building their own quantum hardware and already offering cloud access to quantum computers (much of the software is open-source)–and there are a host of startups in the field. In the past decade, the QC market has grown at a rate of 32% annually. Quantum computing could create between $5 billion to $10 billion in value in the next three to five years, and $450 billion to $850 billion in the next 15 to 30 years, according to Boston Consulting Group estimates. The momentum towards full commercialization is building.
Quantum computers won’t fit in our pockets for decades, if ever. But they will be connected to today’s computers in the near future. Let’s take the time now to provide responsible stewardship for this revolutionary technology, and to insist on enforceable ethical standards so we can use the knowledge and discoveries that quantum computing makes possible for the benefit of the planet and humankind. It is a mission worth pursuing.
Faye Wattleton is a co-founder of the quantum computing company EeroQ. She holds a B.S., and M.S. in nursing and was the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America for 14 years. Faye has served on more than 30 corporate, academic, and foundation boards of directors, including Columbia University, Estée Lauder, and Empire Blue Cross & Blue Shield. She holds 14 honorary degrees and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
More must-read commentary published by Fortune:
- Stanford researchers scoured every reputable study for the link between video games and gun violence that politicians point to. Here’s what the review found
- Is it smart to be a ‘stupid genius’ like Elon Musk?
- Why there will be no winners in the never-ending war between Disney and DeSantis
- America had the debate about paying its debt after the Revolution and the Civil War. Here’s why we reached the same conclusion twice