Equipping Society for Responsible Quantum Innovation

The goal of this research project is to develop useful perspectives on how society can anticipate quantum technologies. Through philosophical and ethical analyses the societal implications of quantum computing in the near-to-medium-term are explored, with a particular focus on the threat that quantum computing poses to cybersecurity and the transition towards quantum-safe cryptography in response. Based on these analyses it is mapped what is needed for deliberate decision-making during the innovation process.

The research builds on the SEA-framework for responsible quantum technology (Kop et al. 2023), which articulates Safeguarding, Engaging, and Advancing society as the three pillars of responsible quantum innovation. The project is carried out in three sub-studies, each one focusing on one of these pillars. In response to the objective of Safeguarding society, the first study focuses on anticipating potential future technological risks and the usefulness of the precautionary principle, using the quantum cybersecurity threat as a case study. Elaborating on the objective of Engaging society, the second study delves into the topic of ‘understanding’ (De Regt, 2017; De Jong & De Haro, forthcoming) as a requirement for stakeholder engagement. To substantiate the objective of Advancing society, the third study uses the transition towards quantum-safe cryptography to open a broader discussion about taking non-maleficence (‘do no harm’-principle) versus beneficence (‘do good’-principle) as the central aim of responsible innovation.

Overall aim

The overall aim of this research project is to provide a philosophical foundation for the objectives of Safeguarding, Engaging, and Advancing society which together constitute the SEA-framework for responsible quantum innovation (Kop et al., 2023). Combining philosophical and ethical analyses, the project seeks to explicate what responding to these objectives amounts to. The project delivers a conceptual toolkit that equips society with useful notions of understanding, precaution, and responsibility, that provide guidance in pursuing responsive quantum innovation.

Sub-study 1: Safeguarding society

When aiming to anticipate the potential risks of new technologies, the challenge is to strike a prudent balance between ‘underreacting’ and ‘overreacting’. The precautionary principle (Gardiner, 2006) is often appealed to for navigating this balancing act. However, this ‘better safe than sorry’-principle comes with its own risks (Price, 2022). Confronted with uncertainty about potential risks of new technologies like quantum, it may be unclear what ‘safeguarding against risks’ would require. To illustrate this, the call for a transition to quantum-safe cryptography in response to the cybersecurity threat posed by future quantum computers, is analyzed. The aim of this study is to scrutinize the use of the precautionary principle in the context of technological risks, and to develop a useful perspective on what ‘safeguarding against risks’ amounts to when these risks are marked by uncertainty.

Sub-study 2: Engaging society

Stakeholder engagement, preferably upstream, is seen as a cornerstone of responsible technological innovation (e.g. Stilgoe, Owen, & MacNaghten, 2013; Coenen & Grunwald, 2017). Including ‘society’ in the innovation process and stimulating a public debate about new technologies contributes to the democratization of technological innovation. Such democratization would yield more responsible technology, that is: technology that aligns with public values – and contribute to their social acceptance. Anticipating the potential impact of quantum technologies, several calls have been made for societal debates (Coenen & Grunwald, 2017), democratic deliberation (Seskir et al., 2023), and early stakeholder engagement (Kop et al., 2023) to foster responsible research and innovation in this novel realm of technology. It remains underspecified, however, what level of understanding of quantum technology enables people to engage in a meaningful discussion. This study elucidates what it means to have a reasonable level of technological understanding that fosters critical engagement.

Sub-study 3: Advancing society

One way to explain the term ‘responsible’ in responsible innovation is by appealing to procedural aspects (e.g. Stilgoe, Owen, & MacNaghten, 2013). However, other approaches explain ‘responsible’ in a more substantial way, connecting innovation with societal goals and public values (e.g. Von Schomberg, 2013; Van den Hoven, Vermaas, & Van de Poel, 2015). This study proposes that a procedural approach primarily responds to the principle of non-maleficence (‘do no harm’- principle), while a substantial approach is responsive to the principle of beneficence (‘do good’- principle). Based on an analysis of the ethical aspects of the transition to quantum-safe cryptography, it will be explored whether responsible innovation demands being responsive to both principles of non-maleficence and beneficence.