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We've all drunk the quantum Kool-aid

Reposted with permission from Beauty in Decoherence (original post)


We need to quit acting like quantum is going to “change the world.” Or rather, we need to think carefully about what “changing the world” actually means.


Yes, quantum technology is going to change the world — in the sense that every new technology leaves the world a different place than before it was invented. And yes, there’s a whole lot of things in the world that need changing. But there’s a key difference between “changing the world” and “changing the world for the better.” We need to stop conflating these two concepts. All betterment of the world comes through change, but not all change is for the better. And yet somehow even in the “responsible quantum” circles I find myself in, this seemingly obvious observation is sometimes considered a radical statement.

Over time, I’ve absorbed the label “quantum skeptic” because I’m one of the few voices in the community that isn’t gung-ho about quantum technology. I’ve even come to wear it with pride. Yes, I believe quantum technology is going to change the world (whether or not quantum computing is ever actually commercialized). I just am not convinced it’s going to change the world for the better. I’m a “quantum skeptic” not because I doubt the technology is going to be an impact — I wouldn’t care about it otherwise! — but because I express doubt that impact by itself is a good thing. We’ve all drunk the quantum Kool-aid. It’s time we got sober.


 

One of the problems with much well-intended advocacy among scientists is that we treat scientific progress as an inexorable positive. It is instinctive to praise science for the sake of science for two reasons: (1) We tend to believe (as I do) that scientific progress is more often good than bad, and (2) given humanity’s general aversion to change, certain loud anti-science voices are extremely negative about the process of science in general, making it tempting to construct an equally compelling counternarrative. Yet we must simultaneously accept the premises that scientific progress itself is morally neutral — the social good that we associate with scientific progress is a result of societal choices we constantly make about how we use the science, not inherent in the scientific process itself. In simpler terms: the scientific method is nothing but a robust tool for generating reliable and systematic knowledge. Knowledge itself can be used for good or evil. Tools are morally neutral — it is how we use them that matters. Knowledge coupled with wisdom is essential for the survival of humanity in a moment of climate crisis. Knowledge without wisdom is a loose cannon.

Consider the case of the humble hammer. On the whole, the hammer has been used to do a lot of good throughout human history in construction, repairs, and arts and crafts. It has also been used to do a lot of bad (from injured thumbs to murders) caused by careless or ill-intentioned use. In other words, the hammer is morally neutral. If — as is probable — the hammer has been used to do a lot more good than evil over human history, that’s because we have leveraged the collective wisdom of society to use hammers in ways that generally promote the common good. Carpenters go to trade school to learn how to best leverage the benefits of hammers, building robust buildings while minimizing workplace injuries. On the other hand, possessing a hammer can (under totality of evidence) get you arrested for possession of burglary tools. Context and intent changes everything.

We as scientists need to remember that scientific knowledge is not fundamentally different. There is some knowledge and technological advancements that society would have been better off without because we lacked the wisdom and humility to limit our own worst instincts when it came to using the knowledge. If scientists had never discovered nuclear fission, the US never would have been able to use atomic bombs to commit war crimes in Japan. Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas led to unspeakable genocide. But that doesn’t mean the knowledge was itself evil — rather it was grossly misused. One can imagine an alternative world in which the discovery of nuclear fission was harnessed only to produce clean zero-emission electricity and not to build weapons of mass destruction, poison Indigenous lands with radiation from uranium mining, or culpably produce staggering amounts of nuclear waste in the absence of plans to safely dispose of it. One can imagine an alternative world in which European (or Polynesian?) “discovery” of the Americas was accompanied by a deep reverence for Indigenous people and the land that rendered conquest and settler colonialism unthinkable. In both cases, the “knowledge” was morally neutral. But because the relevant societal bodies lacked the wisdom and humility to apply the knowledge for justice, it was applied for evil (and thus the knowledge ought never have been created in such a reckless context). And those many scientists who stood by thinking scientific advancement meant (positive) progress were as morally culpable as those who intentionally collaborated with evil — a lesson Oppenheimer learned too late.

Quantum like most broad fields of scientific research will change the world. And this change is morally neutral. Quantum technology can be leveraged in ways that improve the world, like building civic interest in science or solving problems that would genuinely benefit humanity like pharmaceutical development (assuming predictions hold). It can also be leveraged in ways that make the world genuinely worse, like entrenching diversity problems or starting a US-China quantum arms race that enriches capital at the expense of world peace. (Under the status quo, all we can count on is it can and will be leveraged for profit and neocolonialism.) And yes, we quantum scientists have the moral and ethical responsibility to demand that our work be used for good and not for evil. And to do our best to refuse to cooperate with axes of evil (current funding structures may make this ideal impossible, but we must do our damnedest to try nonetheless) and refuse to create knowledge without the wisdom needed to use it appropriately.


 

Every time I start talking about quantum technology, the conversation immediately goes to how it is going to “change the world” — as if that were an inherent positive. It can be positive, but it can also be profoundly negative (if, say, the result is a global breach of internet security). We have the power to decide which way it will go, and we must not cede this power out of the baseless reassurance that everything will be alright. When we think of people drinking the quantum Kool-Aid, we probably picture certain hype-filled pop science articles. But the greater moral danger — which virtually all of us, myself included, are falling into — is building a politics around the false assumption that technological change is fundamentally good.

The antidote to a world that too often believes change is fundamentally bad isn’t to naively pretend it’s fundamentally good instead. It’s to humbly realize that it is our choices that make it one or the other!

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