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Without Safeguards, Quantum Computing Risks Exacerbating Global Inequalities

Alessia Zornetta is an S.J.D Candidate at the UCLA School of Law and a researcher for the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy.

June 13, 2018: IBM shows a model of quantum computer at their pavilion at CeBIT 2018. Shutterstock

In September, industry representatives, academics, and experts in technology policy, research, and development met for the Transatlantic Quantum Forum to discuss the impact of quantum technology and the technical, legal, and social challenges it poses. These conversations are aligned with industry trends. This month, IBM announced it is investing $20 billion over the next ten years to develop quantum computing. In August, Baidu Inc., the most popular Chinese search engine, announced that it had succeeded in building “Qianshi,” a 10-quantum-bit computer. Google announced it had achieved ‘quantum supremacy’– by producing a quantum computer that carried out a particular calculation that would be impossible for a traditional machine–  in 2019.  

While quantum technology has the potential to revolutionize science, finance, and internet security, an uneven race – in which developed nations once again take the lead – risks leaving behind developing nations and furthering the global technological divide. Quantum technology can be disruptive if those who obtain it are not constrained by ethical and legal safeguards. To avoid replicating inequalities, we need to rethink how we research and develop technology, who has access to it, and how they will use it.  

What is a Quantum Computer?

A quantum computer is not just a better version of a classic supercomputer. Quantum technology is based on quantum physics, where fundamental particles exist in a state of uncertainty. A quantum bit (qubit) can be 0 and 1 simultaneously. This characteristic allows quantum computers to process information at a grander scale and speed than classic supercomputers. In 2019, Google demonstrated that its prototype quantum computer could solve a complex calculation that would occupy a  classic supercomputer for 10,000 years.  Although quantum computing is still under development, such a possibility opens the path to an unprecedented degree of innovation. More importantly, quantum computing has the potential to break the internet as we know it, and that’s why who gets there first matters. 

Secure internet communication relies primarily on public-key-cryptography (PKC). Imagine a conversation between Max and Sarah, each of whom has two keys – one private and one public. Max will use Sarah’s public key when he wants to send an encrypted message to Sarah. Sarah will use her private key to open and decrypt the message. In this way, nobody else besides Max and Sarah can read the content of the message. To break encryption, supercomputers need to try each possible public/private key combination available, which is extremely difficult to compute. The same applies to all sorts of online operations that include data encryption, authentication, and digital signatures. However, quantum technology allows the computation of highly complex problems. A quantum computer could quickly break the cryptographic keys used in communication by exhaustively searching for all secret keys (which would be infeasible for a traditional computer). So, in addition to other applications, reliable quantum computing will create a substantial advantage for companies and nations that achieve it.

The Global Quantum Race

Now, developing a quantum computer is an extremely ambitious, expensive, and lengthy process with no guarantees of success. When companies and nations discuss investments in quantum computing, such investments have “billions” and “decades” next to them. Only a few countries and companies currently have the resources to develop quantum computing (and they are all racing against each other). According to a McKinsey report, China is set to accelerate the quantum race thanks to a $15.3bn investment, twice as much as the EU ($7.5) and almost eight times as much as the US ($1.9bn). Analyzing the difference in public funding of quantum research is important because it hints at which states will likely dictate how the internet will function in a (not so far away) future. 

Developing a functioning quantum computer is so crucial that states and organizations generally “open” with their research have imposed strict limits on what researchers working on national initiatives can or not share with the worldwide community. For instance, the EU, which was initially collaborating with the UK, Israel, and Switzerland, received backlash after announcing that only Member States will be able to access funding for quantum research. In the United States, companies are barred from selling components to Chinese companies. The UK requires companies to obtain governmental authorization before selling relevant quantum-relevant technology abroad and disclosing research findings. 

Quantum Haves and Quantum Have Nots

While this handful of nations continues to counter-bid each other, the rest of the world continues to struggle to keep pace with classic computing and technology, with a third of the world’s population without access to the internet. The potential of quantum, thus, risks putting developing nations in an exasperated situation of dependency on whoever obtains a functioning quantum computer first. Being able to break classic encryption quickly means being able to access national security documents and military devices and intercept national security communications that rely on classic encryption. In the wrong hands, all this information could devastate developing nations’ – sometimes already precarious – economic and digital infrastructures. This ability will further amplify the divide between those with access to quantum computing and those without it. While leading nations are preparing for the post-quantum world, developing nations will not be protected unless a more inclusive global research and development plan is implemented. 

Even in the (less likely) best-case scenario, quantum computers will not be commercially available any time soon. Instead, experts argue they will be remotely accessible via cloud systems only to a few private organizations and highly developed public entities. This means that, instead of the current state where individuals, private and public institutions all have access to end-to-end encryption, in the quantum era, access to secure communications will be highly unequal. Such an asymmetry may exacerbate existing divisions between competitive nations, or those in conflict. Inequality of technology within nations will also worsen individuals’ fundamental rights. If national security agencies and law enforcement have access to quantum technology while individuals do not, the privacy of communications will quickly vanish. In particular, individuals that rely on encrypted communication to coordinate opposition or denounce human rights violations in authoritarian countries will be even more at risk. 

To be clear, the advancements quantum computing might bring to life sciences, and financial services should not be underestimated, and we should continue incentivizing its development. However, this incentive should not come without ethical and human rights safeguards, and developing nations should not be left subject to the first achievers of quantum supremacy. Increasing awareness of quantum risks and how to be prepared for their impact are the first steps of the process. Next, a legal-ethical framework should be promoted for the development of quantum computing that accounts for the technology’s emerging legal, ethical, and social risks.