Charting the landscape for responsible and ethical quantum computing

Although at an early stage of development, quantum computing offers transformative potential across industry and wider society. Potential applications, including quantum machine learning, simulation, and optimisation, are being explored across sectors such as financial services, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, and scientific discovery. Future use cases, which could include the discovery of novel pharmaceuticals, optimising energy efficiency, and fraud detection, present an opportunity for significant societal benefits.  

This pivotal moment in quantum computing’s evolution presents an important opportunity to take a responsible and ethical approach to its development and use. As we’ve learnt from past examples of emerging technologies, such considerations must enter at an early stage in order to steer the trajectory of development towards maximising societal benefits, ensuring their equitable distribution, and minimising potential risks. At the NQCC, we work proactively to embed responsible and ethical quantum computing throughout all of our activities, as well as championing and enabling a responsible approach across the quantum landscape. 

This commitment to responsible innovation is shared by many across the quantum computing community. At the NQCC’s Roundtable Workshop on Responsible and Ethical Quantum Computing (REQC), hosted at techUK offices in September 2023, we brought together thought leaders in quantum computing, policy, and responsible technology to establish a shared understanding of the current landscape for REQC in the UK and internationally.  

Mentioned frequently at the workshop was the UK’s world-leading position on responsible innovation in quantum, evidenced by the emphasis on societal benefit, ethical development, and responsible innovation throughout the UK’s National Quantum Strategy. Others agree: the World Economic Forum’s Quantum Economy Blueprint uses the UK as a key case study in how to develop a responsible National Strategy. The more recent publication of the Regulatory Horizons Council report on Regulating Quantum Technology Applications, written by a team of independent experts commissioned by DSIT’s Office for Quantum, highlights responsible innovation as a core theme for both current practice and future regulation, to incorporate societal and ethical dimensions. 

It was also clear at the workshop that the industry – both end-users and vendors – recognises the importance of responsible innovation in quantum. Good intentions and a commitment to doing the right thing were frequently heard, but it was noted that further support and guidance on responsible quantum is needed to deliver. In response, the NQCC, along with industry co-chairs techUK and UKQuantum, recently established the Responsible Quantum Industry Forum, to enable the UK’s quantum industry in the responsible development and use of quantum technologies. Following the co-development of shared principles, the Forum provides a venue for member organisations to share best practices, case studies, and lessons learnt in operationalising responsible quantum. 

We also heard of the developing field of research into responsible quantum, and the opportunities to leverage lessons learnt from past technologies: anticipating implications early, engaging inclusively, and responding appropriately, working together across sectors and domains. The UK’s collaborative and vibrant quantum industry was identified as a key enabler, with the roundtable workshop itself highlighted as an example of what could be achieved by bringing interdisciplinary expertise together. 

The outputs of the roundtable workshop have been invaluable in shaping the NQCC’s strategy for responsible and ethical quantum computing, across three pillars.   

Firstly, we are carrying out research on societal, ethical, and policy considerations, leveraging our technical expertise to provide thought leadership, and disseminating our understanding into policy discussions, as well as the responsible quantum research community. 

Our research also informs the second pillar: embedding and operationalising REQC internally. To support our responsible approach, we have developed a framework for REQC and are working with our teams to build understanding, processes, and tools to put our principles into practice. 

The final pillar is enabling: championing responsible quantum and building capabilities throughout the quantum computing community. The Responsible Quantum Industry Forum is one example. Another is the NQCC’s annual Quantum Hackathon, which incorporates REQC as a core component, training a new generation of quantum computing researchers to consider and address societal and ethical considerations to innovate responsibly. 

As quantum computing continues to evolve, we must work together as a community to ensure its responsible and ethical development and use. In doing so, we can manage risks, ensure equitable distribution of benefits, and harness quantum computing’s potentially transformative capabilities to deliver a brighter future for all.