Quantum technologies have been the subject of much hype. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Hype is not unique to quantum.
Most areas of science and technology have examples of hype, which is used to evoke excitement about potential new developments and attract popular support.
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But this form of communication can be problematic, especially given the potential for deception when hyped-up promises are not accompanied by disclaimers related to the conditions required for a promised future to eventuate.
Quantum technologies are based on quantum science, a relatively new field of physics. The laws of quantum mechanics were first explored only a century ago.
Quantum science describes the physics of particles at the small scale, such as electrons and photons. Such particles can, according to the laws of quantum physics, show wave-like behaviour.
With anticipated uses in a broad variety of sectors that stretch from health and telecommunications to finance and defence, quantum technologies are the subject of speculation and investment by nations and corporations worldwide.
Quantum is often framed as ‘spooky’ or ‘enigmatic’ and the recent developments in quantum technology are often narrowly described, both in terms of the impact they will have on society as well as their possible applications.
This might hinder people engaging with this emerging technology coming from fundamental science, while the technology is already envisioned to be ‘disruptive‘ to society.
One area that is being studied is the communication that guides the evolution of the quantum technology sector and the structures that govern it.
One focus of this work is quantum hype, or sensationalist promises and exaggerated claims focused on quantum technologies.
However, this hype can have an unexpected — and potentially unintended — use.
The outcome of hype is heightened attention on the topic at hand. So, quantum-focused hype in recent years has elevated the profile of one specific type of quantum technology, quantum computing.
This heightened attention comes at a cost, which is the potential for increased scrutiny around the value the science or technology — in this case, quantum computing — brings and when this value may be delivered in full.
Questions have also been asked about the potential negative impacts of quantum computing, such as whether this technology will result in a cybersecurity crisis.
Parallel increased discussion on quantum technologies has also invited reflection on the problems and challenges this emerging sector may pose.
Potential problems include the worsening of unequal power distribution and human rights impacts as well as reinforcement of existing challenges like problems of data use and ownership, privacy, and algorithmic discrimination.
Simple solutions to the social challenges presented by quantum technologies do not yet exist within the sector.
Some suggestions for future work include working on policy that can help govern the sector and provide guidance on how technology developers can fulfil society’s expectations around privacy, security, and fairness.
Other areas of work include discussion on principles that can support responsible development of quantum technologies.
Popular communication — and hype — of quantum technologies has so far been created by experts in the field. This may change as new stakeholders are impacted by the emerging technologies, potentially introducing new aspects into the discussion.
Dr Tara Roberson is an associate investigator at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems, based at the University of Queensland’s node. She is a science communicator whose work helps pre-empt positive and negative impacts of quantum technologies. This will help shape technologies that are both socially desirable and created in the public interest.
Dr Julia Cramer is an assistant professor of ‘Quantum and Society’ at Leiden University in The Netherlands. She is a quantum physicist and science communication researcher, interested in the boundary between fundamental science and society, and fascinated about communicating science to (non-obvious) publics. Her research focus is on quantum and society.
The authors’ research referred to in this article was supported by the Dutch National Growth Fund (NGF), as part of the Quantum Delta NL programme and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems.