How to Regulate Quantum Technology Before Everyone Figures Out How It Works

Legislators, physicists, software engineers and end users must find a common language and establish rules.

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It’s time for researchers, policymakers and regulators to start discussing quantum computing and all the benefits and risks of this technology, according to a member of the Center for Quantum Networks. The challenge is to put in place safeguards to prevent illegal activity and have an informed debate without reducing the technology to a series of tubes.

Rob Heverly is a professor at Albany Law School and one of nine 2022 National Science Foundation Center for Quantum Networks Fellows. He studies the regulation and legal implications of new technologies and advises policy makers on how new technologies can be regulated even when they are not fully understood. Heverly said it’s always a problem when policymakers oversimplify technology when trying to write regulations. He’s heard misconceptions about quantum computing before.

“People say quantum networks will allow you to send immediate communications regardless of distance and that’s not how it will work,” he said.

The key to regulating new technologies is to focus on legal and illegal behavior, not the tools used in those activities.

“Instead of focusing on how fraud happens on the internet, just make fraud law,” he said. “Watch the conduct and prohibit these things.”

SEE: The quantum computing ecosystem is expanding in all directions

It makes a distinction between cybercrime, which requires specific laws, and more general activity like defamation.

“Breaking into a computer is one thing, but if you’re talking defamation, yes, I can defame someone in 120 characters, and it doesn’t matter if it’s on Twitter,” he said.

Putting in place safeguards for the quantum internet

Heverly’s work with CQN focuses on how to regulate the quantum internet and how to explain this new technology to regulators and legislators so that policy choices have an accurate basis.

He suggested that quantum fellows examine how policymakers and national security officials have interacted with new technologies in the past. The Clipper Chip project provides an example of how not to address cybersecurity. In 1993, the National Security Agency suggested that all encryption go through a particular chipset. Two government agencies would hold the keys in escrow and would need to obtain court approval to decrypt the communications.

“As people were arguing about the idea, someone basically hacked the chip,” Heverly said. “If it had been necessary, there would have been a ton of technology that could be intercepted.”

The objectives of the Center are to build a quantum Internet that meets these two criteria:

  • Enables physics-based communication security that cannot be compromised by any amount of computing power
  • Creates a global network of quantum computers, processors and sensors that are fundamentally more powerful than current technology

A quantum network uses the properties of photons to encode information. Quantum communication protocols will formalize these standards for transporting information through a quantum network. Heverly suggests that regulators and law enforcement officials begin discussions about quantum encryption and quantum networks with these two questions:

  1. What regulations are needed to determine how law enforcement can access information sent over the quantum internet?
  2. How can we ensure that individual countries or governments do not get exclusive jurisdiction over quantum internet regulation?

He said the key is to educate policy makers on the capabilities of a new technology and to think in terms of broad use cases.

“Perhaps more people working together in good faith could come up with regulations that would do what we expect of them without having unintended consequences,” he said.

Thinking about the history of technology regulation, Heverly also used the example of Section 230. The goal was not to protect sites that post sexual photos of someone without their consent, but to c is the unintended consequence of the law.

“The law has been applied very broadly, not only to those who would like to make the Internet less difficult, but to those who would make it more difficult,” he said. “Now trying to call him back is really difficult.”

The same goes for quantum computing.

“Until the quantum network is available and entrepreneurs start doing things with it, we won’t be able to tell what it can do,” he said. “But if you create really strong encryption to use on networks and make it widely available, people are going to do bad things with it.”

Bridging the communication gap

Part of the challenge of regulating new technologies is that stakeholders (users, developers, regulators and national security experts) do not all speak the same language.

“I was talking to a physicist about how I was looking at the legal implications of quantum networks and he said, ‘What does the law have to do with quantum networks?'” Heverly said.

Physicists and other researchers who spend decades studying complex topics like quantum computing sometimes get frustrated when trying to explain the potential and the risks to lay people.

“Sometimes they want you to appreciate all the beauty they see there and you can’t,” he said.

One way to bridge the gap between policymakers and researchers is to find an expert who can translate complex topics for a general audience and encourage that person to take on a spokesperson role. It’s not as easy as it looks, he says.

“Being the face of the public isn’t always good for your research career,” he said, “Sometimes your colleagues ask why you ridicule our ideas?”

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