SLS’s Mauritz Kop Discusses Quantum Technology and the Need for Legal and Policy Guardrails

Stanford Law School (SLS) recently launched a first-of-its-kind center focused on establishing the policies, laws, and global practices that will promote the responsible development and use of quantum technologies. Spearheaded by Executive Director Mauritz Kop, SLS’s Center for Responsible Quantum Technology works across a slew of disciplines to tackle the ethical, legal, social, and policy implications of this rapidly advancing, mind-bending field.

Mauritz Kop
Mauritz Kop, founding director of SLS’s Center for Responsible Quantum Technology

Quantum technology involves the smallest particles in the universe: subatomic specks of matter and energy that defy the laws of traditional physics. But the global implications are massive. 

Quantum technology can seem counterintuitive and the stuff of science fiction: particles existing in two places at once (superposition), electrons and atoms moving through seemingly impenetrable barriers (tunneling), or a group of particles sharing spatial proximity in such a way that the quantum state of each particle of the group cannot be described independently of the state of the others (entanglement). Quantum computing has so far received much of the popular attention. It is expected that universal quantum machines eventually will make today’s supercomputers look like sluggish calculators.

Quantum technology also is poised to transform healthcare, geology, astrophysics, materials science, transportation, and energy —just for starters. 

Kop recently co-wrote a paper for the journal Nature Physics that makes the case for an interdisciplinary vision of responsible quantum technology and innovation. A Call for Responsible Quantum Technology, published on April 9, was co-authored by two fellows of SLS’s Center for Responsible Quantum Technology: Urs Gasser, dean and professor of public policy, governance, and innovative technology at the Technical University of Munich, and Eline De Jong, a Dutch scholar working on the philosophical and ethical aspects of new and emerging technologies. The paper calls on the scientific community to take a shared responsibility for defining quantum technology principles and practices.

In addition to publishing this and other recent papers, Kop and his team are preparing for the Second Annual Stanford Responsible Technology Conference on May 20 at Stanford Law School and also recently launched the Stanford Quantum Incubator to foster exponential innovation in quantum technologies. 

Here, among other topics, Kop discusses the urgent need to erect legal and policy guardrails to ensure that quantum technology benefits humanity and the planet. Our current debates about the implications for artificial intelligence might soon feel quaint, he says, in the face of the promises and perils of quantum technology.

I think many people have heard the term “quantum computing,” but “quantum technology” is much broader and arguably not yet broadly understood. Can you start by explaining what is meant by “quantum technology” and how quantum computing fits in?

Quantum computing is just one domain, or branch, of quantum technology. This is a rapidly developing, multidisciplinary field of computer science, physics, and engineering that uses quantum mechanics to create an entirely new computational paradigm resulting in a class of supercomputers that can operate much faster and better than traditional computers, on targeted mathematical problems. We expect universal quantum computers to become available in about three years, meaning things are moving forward quickly. Quantum technology, or QT, is a group of technologies that work by leveraging counter-intuitive quantum mechanical effects, including entanglement and superposition. The family of quantum technologies is much broader than just computing and includes sensing, simulation, and networking, among other areas. The unique physics of the very small is increasingly used in AI, biotechnology, robotics, nuclear, and augmented reality – resulting in “quantum-classical hybrids.”

It is important to note that first-generation quantum applications like semiconductors and lasers have been around for years, but second-generation quantum technology, which is what we are focused on, goes a step further, manipulating quantum effects quite specifically to trigger desired processes or states. 

Your Nature Physics paper lays out some of quantum technology’s huge potential for good. What can we look forward to with these burgeoning technologies? 

Often, we see that people focus on the negative and frightening parts of QT and it’s really important to make sure people understand quantum’s huge potential for good. In both qualitative (novel functionality and capability) and quantitative (improved power, speed, fidelity) ways. Take, for example, healthcare and life sciences. Quantum sensors will make medical imaging and MRIs much faster, more accurate, and reliable. Quantum computers will enhance de novo drug design. When you combine quantum with AI in medical diagnostics, you get quantum-inspired personalized medicine, a combination of quantum and AI that will be able to detect and predict diseases much better. We will also have precision laser therapy, laser capabilities that are super precise and better than anything we have now. QT will be used for a whole range of climate mitigation strategies like carbon capture, alternative energy discovery, and battery development. Also, there’s quantum sensing for microchip fabrication. We can use quantum sensors with atomic scale resolution to make increasingly small nanoscale chips. Quantum chemistry will enable breakthroughs in materials research. Quantum simulation promises informed macro-economic policy making. Quantum sensing for seismic imaging and prediction will help us predict when and where earthquakes will happen. The list goes on.

While many of these technologies are still years down the road, some are starting to make their way out of the labs and onto the market. Computing and simulation systems, for example, are already making highly accurate weather predictions beyond 14 days out and second-generation sensors are being used in military capacities as a substitute for GPS, in the detection of submarines.

On the flip side, there are some frightening scenarios as well. What keeps you up at night?

Yes, that’s the mission of the center– to steer things into the beneficial direction so that we will have beneficial outcomes and can sleep well at night. Just as we can use QT to protect and enhance privacy and data security, it can also be used to break data security. In addition, we want to avoid a quantum arms race. And many of the perils and risks are unknown because they are beyond our current imagination. Breaking cryptography and classical data security, that’s the one “use case” people are most afraid of right now. We call that “Q-Day”, the day when quantum computers suddenly break the Internet. And we are looking at a time frame of just three years for that, so there is tremendous urgency here to get things right, both on the software and hardware side of things. And then there are huge risks associated with authoritarianism and state surveillance, because quantum is ubiquitous and potentially dual use. Quantum Artificial Intelligence (QAI) will be like AI on steroids. It’s a dictator’s dream

Why is it critical, as you lay out in your recent paper, that this be a highly interdisciplinary field?

This is one aspect of life and technology where it is critical to go beyond the siloed approach to problem-solving. We need all the disciplines in diverse, inclusive settings. We need all cultures to get the best outcomes. We need men and women in those multidisciplinary teams to solve these hypercomplex matters. If you have just the perspective of a lawyer, you won’t necessarily see the ethical ramifications or understand the science and physics of quantum mechanics. If you come at it from an engineering, computer or data science perspective, you’ll miss the geopolitical dimension, or the societal impact. But interdisciplinary is not always easy. When we wrote our two flagship papers with an interdisciplinary team of 10 leading lights in this area, we had over 70 versions of each paper. We had deep discussions about how to conceptualize our principled approach, about future use cases, on how to balance safeguarding and advancing QT, and on how to put our vision into everyday practice. But critical to what we talk about at the Center–where we ultimately want to go– is anticipating quantum ELSPI, the ethical, legal, social and policy implications of the technology and we connect that to well-established values of RRI, or responsible research and innovation. We focus on the “quadruple helix” of academia, regulators, industry and end users. We need people from all these areas to talk to and understand each other, to set the rules of the road for quantum together.

Why is it notable that your paper about interdisciplinary quantum cooperation was published in a science journal, not a law journal?

This is a really big deal for us, for the credibility of the responsible quantum technology field. Normally, most lawyers do not write for a publication like Nature. Our strategy is to publish both in the peer-reviewed technical and legal journals so that it will be much easier for Washington and Brussels to cite those articles and to build their policies upon them. For instance, policy strategies pertaining to national security, export controls, supply chains, intellectual property, standardization, and establishing trusted and certified “Made in America” Quantum Technologies. The quantum physics world is normally very siloed. And now they are allowing us–lawyers, ethicists, philosophers, futurists and evangelists into their domain.  I feel humbled and privileged to be able to contribute to this field through our Stanford Center.

You also recently launched the Stanford Quantum Incubator. What can you tell us about that?

SQI is a Silicon Valley business catalyst dedicated to advancing quantum technology development and adoption, regionally, nationally, and beyond. We envision that it will eventually be run by experienced venture capitalists affiliated with the Center as RQT fellows. So, at its core, SQI bridges the gap between academia, government, investors, and industry. We also see the incubator as a hub for Stanford students who are studying quantum physics, AI, materials science and engineering, and computer science. It will encompass all university’s schools, including GSB, Doerr, and Stanford Medicine students. We’re going to help the quantum startup scene remove barriers to build startups and scaleups. The result will be quantum competency driving a new wave of economic growth locally. We envision the Center and the incubator’s entrepreneurial spirit to be at the forefront of the emerging quantum innovation cluster. 

Read About the Launch of the Center

Mauritz Kop is the Founder and Executive Director of the Stanford Center for Responsible Quantum Technology, and a Stanford Law School TTLF Fellow at Stanford University. He is also Founder of MusicaJuridica, Director at AIRecht, and General Counsel at Daiki, a Vienna and Palo Alto headquartered unified SaaS platform committed to building a Trustworthy AI future. Mauritz’ interdisciplinary academic work on regulating AI, machine learning training data, intellectual property, and the suite of quantum technologies has been published by Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Oxford, Cambridge, UCLA, Max Planck, Springer Nature, Institute of Physics, Foreign Policy, Fortune, Frontiers in Science, and Nature Physics scholarly and peer reviewed journals.