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Is quantum computing a genie we will wish we kept in the bottle?

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.

As 9/11 propelled the Patriot Act, will current and unpredictable threats lead to the legitimizing of unequaled surveillance of our digital lives that quantum computers might enable?

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?

Must Read:

Microsoft's "do more" vision of quantum computing

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

44 Comments
  • Thanks for reading folks! Though we are ways away from practical quantum computers, and they may or may not arrive, IF they do the implications are around. Given our tendency toward the less appealing aspects of our nature, the reflection of those banal tendencies through the power of quantum computers could have devestating affects. It's not too early to begin entertaining questions as to how to handle the potential implications of this budding technology. So what are you thoughts? LETS TALK!!!
  • No worries. Steam engines have been stupendously stronger than any human, horse or elephant. Machine Intelligence and Quantum Computing will be stupendously faster and quicker in solving certain things/problems for us. I mean, this why we want this stuff, don't we. Remember Marvin, the robot with a brain the size of a planet.
    He was depressed and endlessly bored. Machine intelligence and Quantum Computing will our slaves and will at service to us.
    And help us solve problems that us mortal and imperfect humans are too week to muster the mental resources and concentration (we are always too distracted and way too busy to tackle the really important probkems. Us somewhat evolved haplorhini primares are to confused to manage our businesses, we need help in form machine- and Quantum-slaves who have the machine patience to do all those boring jobs.
  • Ah, yes, sure ... we build them for solving problems, but what could be the biggest problem for our environment?
    You want to see a specimen of it? Look in the mirror!
  • "renowned physicist Stephen Hawking warned" I wouldn't listen to anything he says outside of physics. He has been very vocal about things outside of physics, from the economy to alien invasion to social issues, and has been abundantly wrong about much of it. He has many predictions about physics that he had to backtrack on, but what he says not physics related has been just plain wrong.
  • Really? He's a clever guy. All those warnings from Stephen Hawkings and his peers,
    including strange scientist and author Nick Bostrum,
    are more ofvthe "strategic" warning sort.  I am not afraid of paper clips,
    Microsoft Clippy was a bigger thread back then :-)  
  • Abundantly wrong!? Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't. It's like saying I'd be proved abundantly wrong by saying lions could kill you if you came in contact with one, because 'you don't know anybody who has been attacked by one this week.'
  • Stephen Hawking isn't always right especially outside Physics, he is just a human like all of us. Though he do still have some points on some things. I think what's important is to really take careful consideration and evaluate things that are totally unknown to us, especially when those things has potential to cause harm or just simply change the way we live in unexpected way. It doesn't mean we have to stop and avoid all of it. AI seems very inevitable path forward. There are lot of things can happen when we finally achieve "True-AI" that can help us to solve problems and other things. Though there implications that we have to tackle on AI, especially when on controversial subjects that we are going to encounter in the future. True-AI can be more than just autonomous and that's the thing we have to be prepared, and no at least I don't think we will going to have Terminator-style future.
  • Spot on article. To quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park "Yeah but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn't stop to think if they should."
  • I believe quantum computing will create computers so powerful, they'll become self aware. Then were done for.
  • If Quantum Computing powers the AI then that's a possibility. Quantum Computers alone will be just a next evolution from the classical computers we have, basically tremendously faster and powerful. If they become self-aware, then this is why we have to tackle and prepare for this, which is beyond of just computer science.
  • "a quantum-capable government wouldn't have to ask for a "back door"; they could make their own key." Well no, not really. Only in the case of an imbalance where the government has quantum computing and the people don't, could this be an issue. Provided quantum computing is widespread, encryption will still be stronger and we'll end up with the same stalemate we have today.
  • @Nik That imbalance is one of the concerns we need to be thinking about as we look into this technology.
  • These things aren't symmetric. A quantum computer renders all current forms of encryption useless, whether the other parties also have quantum computers is irrelevant. Until (if) there is a quantum resistant technology developed and globally enforced then it's theoretically open season for anybody with a quantum computer to access whatever they want.
  • Quantum computing is an increase in power based on permutations. This increase in ability to crack encryption also translates to an ability to increase the complexity in encryption algorithms. It may not happen at exactly the same time but you can bet it won't be very far off.
  • That's an oversimplification and no guarantee at all. Even so, any amount of time is too much time. Meanwhile cash machines and nuclear power stations will be still running Windows XP and IE6.
  • Indeed! Though the concern is when who will get first and we know likely who will, its usually the government and any entity that can afford and have use for it. For most people like us, Quantum Computers isn't much of a use except for AI assistants in our devices. Though this will take a while since we have to miniaturized and make quantum computer hardware stable outside mainframe-sized or well contained computer.
  • Reading this article, all i could think of is Westworld. Things can go so wrong when computers reach the level of self awareness and unchecked autonomy
  • @kevin yeah, Sadly, human nature makes us prone to the dystopian outcomes of technological advancements. PS. Perhaps you also caught my subtle references to West World in my closing section with some of the wording and the image choice from the series. ;-)
  • I definitely did ;-)
  • I wouldn't worry about any of these fearful thoughts. Quantum Computing will make current computing extremely efficient, but it won't magically cause AI to think for itself.
  • Of course not. No magic involved.:-) The premise of the piece actually first addressed the nefarious ways in which humans may abuse the technology, and given human history that is a very valid concern. Just look at the abuses of power in Africa with apartheid, the holocaust, slavery and discrimination in America, the abuses of power in Cuba under Castro, the atrocities in the Congo, the lists goes on and on and on, touches every culture throughout the ages. It's sad. Corporations, under the veil of regulations and policies and red tape manipulate markets and policy and politics. So, another form of technology that could potentially enhance our ability for abuse and good needs to be considered a potential threat and proactive thoughts about the risks and regulations should be engaged. Now in regards to AI, again, magic is not the ingredient that would cause AIs to behave in more autonomous ways, potentially just exponentially more processing/computational power. Who knows what directions programs might go given an exponential leap in processing power. I'm not saying they'd become sentient or self aware, but what level of synthesizing of information from multiple sources might they be capable of, then what degree of multistep actions might they be capable of after reaching a conclusion from that data? How integrated will they be with our technology and how might they affect it? We don't necessarily have to be fearful, just wise in our use, expectations and regulation of the technology.
  • China just launched a communications satellite that uses quantum computing for its messages and its encryption is unbreakable. It can detect when someone is looking at the message and destroy that message if it gets into the wrong hands. Haha
  • Well, I guess I need to study bit more about how a particle can be a wave at the same time...how a 0 can be 1 simultaneously...I don't get this idea properly, sadly.
  • In the world of quantum mechanics, things is already weird and different from the way of our thinking that it seems id doesn't make sense, but its the way it is. Very interesting subject to study even its mind boggling at first. You can start of from some easier to digest YouTube channel such as Minute Physics and to even more challenging PBS Space Time. :)
  • Skynet in making -some would say ..
  • You just said it, smartly.
  • Funny though SkyNet name already used by some company. So its really here. Lol
  • Quantum computing isn't magic, it's just a faster calculator.  It isn't goin to give us any more insight into our selves or get us any closer to real human like AI than current compurters ever will.  Cortana/Siri/google will be able to fetch your meeting time and traffic update that much faster, but are still going to be clueless about all the interpersonal things that we take for granted.  She's not going to get your jokes, she's not going to do anything more or less than she is programmed to.  Video games are going to look awesome on a quantum rig, that much is certain.  >.>
  • I think Microsoft's vision of Quantum Computing should not be confused with technology being used by bad people to decrypt secret keys using brute force.  Quantum computing should be a restricted tech that is not available for government or surveilance or criminal groups since they could use this to allow massive surveillance on citizens. Instead Quantum computing should be envisioned as a tool to allow better Artiticial Intelligence research and allow building robots so they can learn and become smarter. Carnegie Mellon already has added self-concience to their robots in a level that they can ask for help when they don't know. This is the kind of stuff that can be utilizing Quantum computing.
  • Hoping for this overlord to be benevolent.
  • I can't help but wonder if we are not just projecting our human fears and past mistakes onto the possibility of self-aware and self-regulating computing entities. Could they not choose a better way than we have? Or are they bound to seek to supplant their creators, like we have sought to do? Payback time maybe, or just an evolutionary expectation - **** Machinis?
  • You should read Daniel Suarez's Influx
  • Quantum computing will give the nefarious minded a means to be exponentially more efficient.
  • Quantum based AI and Chatbots....The day it is ubiquitous is the day we need a new financial system, can you imagine the amount of hacking and social (AI) engineering that will occur. Im all for technology, heading in headfirst without thought is dangerous in many ways we can think of and even more in ways we cant.
  • It opens a doorway into hell
  • Quantum computers and robots will not be at our service, they will be servants of huge companies. At some point in the future, I fully expect the demise of wider education, because it will not considered worth it. The question is, if humanity will continue to propel this by gifting their knowledge to the cloud giants.
  • Idiocracy in the making.
  • We're going to plug in to these systems in time. The threat won't necessarily be an AI, but people plugged in that have the will and desire to use this power in nefarious ways.
  • I don't understand why everyone thinks quantum computers=AI. Myself, I believe AI is like the fountain of youth; a concept perpetuated by science fiction. At least coming out of something man-made like computers. Computers, even learning computers, have to be given a set of instructions to follow, and problems to solve. Unless we tell a learning computer "learn how to eradicate the human race", it's not going to eradicate the human race. Even if we tell it "learn how to make the world better" all we need to do is also tell it "without eradicating the human race" and it will have to follow that instruction set. And if I am wrong, we will just have to put black-hat hackers on shutting Skynet down. They have so far proven  they can hack into and disrupt ANYTHING.
  • I'll say this, it will or could possibly allow the building of intelligent robots and automatic explorers of many kinds that can explore an unknown world, galaxy of stars, deep space, visit planets and most important explore for resources in outer space that can be use on Earth other planets without risking humans to the unknown, build spaceships with warp drive engines.  Yet, we will always have those with bad intentions but we cannot let fear get in the way because we can't depend on other countries to provide needed resources for our needs where in outer space has  abundance that can't be measured.
  • Nice article.  But one thing I've learned is that man will continue to strive to improve and innovate regardless what the consequences may be.  Nor should man stop to reach boundaries for fear of what may or may not occur.  If that were the case we may still be back in the stone ages.  There is a natural skepticism and fear when it comes to something forward thinking.  There will always be naysayers.  Sometimes naysayers are wrong.  And yes, sometimes they are on the mark.  But man will never stop to innovate because they are scared of what may happen.  And that's a good thing from my point of view.
  • Unfortunately we already have much technology things that we don't need em (air conditions with WiFi, fridges with WiFi, smartwatches etc) we are already have much and we haven't seen their full power already. We already play with fire. And the will of the AI may not be dangerous or something but lets not forget that everything is possible when we talk about technology. Day by day many more things are hacked and many people get in danger with their personal staff (most of em do the mistake by themselves) we should stop I think that speed of technology. Or At least gear it down. Not everything is cool or something like that cause we saw it in movies 10-20 years ago
  • What we've got here is, failure to communicate.
    My wish, i won't have to see the prophecies of quantum computing and AI. And my sons either. And my grandsons. And my great-grandsons.
  • "Cruelty, lawlessness and abuses often ensued: the Wild West." While the analogy is well taken, the example isn't all that good. It reminds me of the book "The Not So Wild Wild West," which through proper research establishes that the "wild" west wasn't all that wild. In fact, the mentioned cruelty and abuses are movie (and perhaps centralized government) creations; lawlessness rather led to local and regional institutions and enforcement of fluid common law-type, tradition-based rules.