Global Governance and Ethics in Quantum Technologies

By Walter G. Johnson.

Quantum technologies have great potential to make the world a better place, but not everyone has easy access to them or their immediate benefits. And, unfortunately, quantum technologies could also worsen national security or data protection problems if not used responsibly by governments, companies, or people [1].

Making sure that the benefits of quantum technologies are distributed equitably around the world, while keeping their risks in check, will mean developing global rules about how these technologies should be used ethically.

But figuring out how to set these rules, and who should set them, could be a challenge. Before starting to make new rules and guidelines, it is worth thinking through what bodies would be best positioned to set them and through what types of processes.

Making a new treaty on quantum technologies will probably be difficult, especially with so many other issues on leaders’ minds (for instance, COVID-19). Creating treaties for new technologies often isn’t a priority compared to other pressing issues. For example, no global treaty was ever made for nanotechnologies, despite calls for one many years ago.

Instead, international organizations based on existing treaties could still do much to help promote ethical rules for quantum technologies around the world.

One possibility might be the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA has existed since 1957 and now has over 170 member states [2]. The Agency has many tasks, including facilitating international research, setting safety standards, and performing inspections.

Already, the IAEA has shown interest in quantum technologies by setting up an international research project to collaboratively advance the field [3]. If the Agency continues to build expertise on quantum technologies, it could start to consider making ethical or security recommendations for (and with) its member states. However, the IAEA would need to choose to dedicate some of its scarce resources to this task and navigate any politics that come with it.

Non-governmental or multi-stakeholder bodies with global reach could also help in advancing ethics and governance for quantum technologies.

For example, the World Economic Forum (WEF) is an organization that brings together representatives from governments, the private sector, and NGOs to discuss policy issues of global concern. One of WEF’s initiatives is the Global Future Council on Quantum Applications, which hopes to “accelerate the moment when humanity can fully benefit from the power of quantum computing” [4]. But the challenge for bodies like this will be making sure the process is inclusive and that no one who wants to be at the table is excluded by cost, distance, or other factors.

Making sure that the benefits of quantum technologies are distributed equitably around the world – and the risks are properly managed – will be a significant ethical and global governance challenge for years to come. When trying to set new ethical norms, looking to which bodies can or should guide the process might be a good place to start.