Quantum computing is poised to drive a profound leap in computing if companies like Microsoft successfully build practical quantum computers.
The advancements it may bring will be akin to the differences between modern PCs and the abacus.
Microsoft wants to build a platform of quantum tools integrated into its products and services ecosystem, and they're not the only one pursuing such endeavors. Considering the profound privacy, economic, governmental, defense, and artificial intelligence implications of quantum computing, who will be responsible for monitoring the ethics of its use?
Playing with fire?
The promise of quantum computing rests in the power of quantum bits, or qubits. These microscopic particles that, via superposition, can exist as both a 1 and 0 simultaneously can do twice the calculations as a regular bit; which exists as either a 1 or a 0 and is processed sequentially.
Silicon processors are approaching the physical limit of how small we can make the transistors we cram inside them; Microsoft and others are investing in developing quantum computers to address this and the world's most challenging problems.
Microsoft is determined to bringing quantum computing to the masses.
Unlike the more academic approaches of IBM and Google, Microsoft is making a pragmatic investment beyond the controlled and unstable research environment. They're building a quantum system based on topological qubits (more stable versions of quantum bits) within the context of its "platform company" and "do more" vision. This strategic course toward a stable, scalable system is key to bringing quantum computing to the masses.
We're at the start of a long journey toward that goal. Despite the promise of such technology, a candid look at humanity's history and the current state of the world demands caution.
The app doesn't fall far from the tree
Quantum computing may enable unprecedented information access, enhance our prediction capabilities, and give AIs and bots unimaginable boosts in intelligence. An honest acknowledgment of our tendency toward negative uses of technology isn't just merited, it's necessary.
We've used the boundless promise of the atom to forge weapons. Microsoft launched a learning chatbot and within a day our baser public nature trained it to spout racist slurs. History is littered with the powerful using information (and the manipulation thereof) to maintain the status quo. So who will "mind the till" to ensure that quantum systems are not abused by those with power and ill intent?
Regulating human behavior is more complex than quantum computing.
More power is often an irresistible draw for any entity, be it an individual, government or corporation (or maybe even an AI). As complex as quantum computing is, the regulation of human behavior in relation to its power is likely far more complex.
What can go wrong?
Quantum computing's potential for running simulations of years of research could yield incredible benefits for medicine, agriculture, municipal planning, environmental science, and much more.
In the wrong hands it could help produce unimaginable weapons, manipulate markets, drive state-sponsored hackings and more. Cyber warfare could reach unprecedented levels.
Will quantum computing empower enhanced government surveillance of citizens?
Governments may employ enhanced surveillance under the premise of security. Apple refused to build tools to unlock an iPhone for the FBI, but a quantum-capable government wouldn't have to ask for a "back door"; they could make their own key.
If Microsoft becomes a quantum computing platform for the masses, will it become a center of power with unprecedented influence and access to the information of billions of users, industries and government agencies? Who will monitor Microsoft and other quantum corporations — the companies, the industry, or government?
AIs growing up or out of control?
Current digital assistants like Cortana and Google Now are not self-directing and work within set parameters. The immense processing power that will be available to cloud-based AIs and bots within a quantum system may vastly improve autonomy.
A quantum Cortana may be able to "think" autonomously.
Could we end up looking at a friendly AI like KITT or Samantha from Her, or something more nefarious like SkyNet or The Matrix's Architect. These are not just fanciful sci-fi musings; renowned physicist Stephen Hawking warned:
It will bring disruption to our economy. And in the future, AI could develop a will of its own—a will that is in conflict with ours.
In response to these concerns, Hawking established the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (CFI). This collaboration of researchers, policymakers, industry representatives and policymakers will address issues around AI and autonomous weapons that even concerns Bill Gates.
Tesla's Elon Musk adds:
If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it's probably that [AI].
I'm increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don't do something very foolish.
To "keep an eye on what's going on", Musk invested in AI projects like Deepmind and Vicarious (along with Mark Zuckerberg and Ashton Kutcher). Vicarious is attempting to recreate the neocortex — the part of the brain responsible for language, movement and vision — to build a computer that can think like a human.
The wild west world of quantum computing
During the westward conquest of what is now the United States, there was little governing authority for those pioneers who settled the lands occupied by Native Americans. Those who set out to lay their claims in new territories did so with little oversight. Cruelty, lawlessness and abuses often ensued: the Wild West.
Will the "anything goes rules" of the wild west's world be the context of our pioneering of quantum computing? Or will we head anarchy off at the pass with thorough, just and appropriate checks and balances?