Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

Share this blog


23 November 2018

The UK government recently underlined its ambition to become a world leader in quantum technology with the announcement of an additional £235 million of funding in its Autumn budget. Many people’s reaction to this may have been “what is quantum technology?”, but for anyone who keeps an eye on emergent tech trends this wouldn’t have been all that surprising.

Quantum technology, and particularly quantum computing, has quickly become part of the landscape of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’: another one of the many areas of technological development in which governments and companies are falling over each other in their desire to establish supremacy. (If you want a really thorough, albeit fairly technical, overview of the current state of quantum technologies in the UK and beyond, I recommend this paper from the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme).

Since I spend quite a lot of my time thinking through the opportunities and challenges that various forms of disruptive tech might present for philanthropy and civil society, I have been keen for a while to see whether there is anything interesting to be said about the potential impact of quantum tech. (And I may or may not have made a bet with myself that I could get a blog out on the subject before the end of the year…)

This turns out to be quite difficult. Although for some applications such as quantum positioning or quantum gravity detection it is reasonably straightforward to see at least some of the ways they could be of benefit (even if they are still a few years off), it is much harder for quantum computing. This is largely because, despite the growing excitement around quantum computing, there is still a fairly major question about what quantum computers could actually be used for (as we shall see shortly). And those likely uses that we can identify so far are all second-tier, in the sense that they are best understood in terms of the way that they affect other technologies rather than their direct implications, so their impact on civil society is difficult to determine.

Luckily that hasn’t stopped me trying... Although, as ever, I will leave it up to you to be the final arbiters of whether it was worth it.

But before we try to think through the possible civil society implications, let’s look briefly at what we are actually talking about when we talk about quantum technology (and quantum computing in particular) so that we can get a sense of the relevant key features and potential.

Quantum technology and Quantum computing

Quantum theory was one of the major advances in human understanding in the 20th century. The realisation that at a subatomic level, the deterministic view of classical physics breaks down and that we need to understand the world instead in probabilistic terms signalled a genuine paradigm shift, and has led to many subsequent advances in science and technology.

The invention of the transistor, which was crucial to the development of modern digital computing, was one of the notable early successes built on quantum theory, and many other developments followed suit. However, we do not generally refer to these as “quantum technologies”. That is instead a new category used to describe a range of technological approaches that do not just rely on standard quantum effects, but which seek to harness some of the weird and wonderful properties of the world at a quantum level (such as entanglement, superposition or quantum tunnelling) and bring it to bear at a human scale. By doing this, they can enable us to do all kinds of things that were previously impossible.

Quantum computing is the flagship quantum technology. As the name suggests, the idea here is to use quantum properties to enable a new type of computation that has the potential to be much more powerful than classical computing. Without going into too much detail, the key thing to know is that whilst the fundamental unit of digital computation- the bit - is capable of existing in two states- “on” and “off” (or “1” and “0”), the fundamental unit of computation of quantum computation - the qubit - is able to use the properties of quantum superposition to exist in a far greater number of probabilistic intermediate states. This means that a single qubit can capture and convey far more information than a classical bit is able to.

Now the tricky bit, but one that it is important to understand, is that this doesn’t just mean that “quantum computers are more powerful than digital ones”. Quantum computers have sometimes been portrayed as machines which can run the same calculations as classical computers, but do them “much faster” or “all at the same time” (in parallel). However, this is not really an accurate portrayal of the situation at all. In fact, leading quantum computing expert Scott Aaronson even makes this disclaimer part of the main header for his blog, explaining that: “If you take just one piece of information from this blog: Quantum computers would not solve hard search problems instantaneously by simply trying all the possible solutions at once.”

Quantum computers are thus not simply “faster”: rather they work in a totally different way. This means that they require fundamentally different types of algorithms or programs than digital computers; and whilst it is possible to translate some classical algorithms into quantum ones, this sort of misses the point. The real aim is to find specific quantum algorithms that enable us to solve particular types of problems that are difficult or impossible for classical computers (or at least do them provably faster).

But this is where we hit a snag. At this point, it is not clear exactly what these quantum algorithms are, or how they would apply to the world even if we did find them. There are some likely candidates (some of which we explore below), but even some of these have suffered blows recently when mathematicians have proved that they are in fact no better than equivalent classical algorithms. For example, it was recently reported that an 18 year old prodigy had proved that an optimisation problem known as the “recommendation problem”- which relates to the way in which service like Netflix or Amazon best provide users with recommendations – can be solved using classical algorithms nearly as fast as any known quantum ones. This was a blow for proponents of quantum computing as this kind of problem had been seen as one of the best candidates for the potential of “quantum speedup”. Hence it is probably fair to say that quantum computing is still waiting for its first real ‘killer app’.

With those caveats in mind, let’s now take a look at how quantum technology might affect civil society.

Cybersecurity and Quantum Cryptography

One of the likeliest short-term impacts of quantum computing is that it will transform the nature of the ways in which we protect information online, for two reasons. The first is that it may well undermine our main existing forms of encryption. The model of public key cryptography that underpins pretty much all current online security (particularly RSA encryption) fundamentally relies on one fact: namely that whilst multiplying two very large prime numbers together is not very difficult for a computer, doing the reverse (i.e. factoring a given very large number into its prime components) is pretty much impossible.

However, this turns out to be one thing that quantum computers are likely to excel at. One of the first true quantum algorithms to be discovered (known as “Shor’s Algorithm”) is aimed at factorising large numbers into primes, and is (so far) provably more efficient than any classical equivalent. What this means in practice is that if someone with malign intentions was able to implement Shor’s Algorithm on a quantum computer, they could conceivably crack the best available forms of encryption and thus would be able to steal information and assets with ease.

But this brings us to the second reason quantum computing may well transform online security: as well as undermining existing forms of encryption, it also enables “quantum encryption” to be developed. This exploits quantum phenomena such as entanglement to create new forms of encryption that are truly unbreakable.

So what is the upshot for civil society? Well, pretty much the same as it is for everyone else; in that organisations will have to adapt to a new context in which existing forms of encryption can no longer be assumed to be secure, whilst new and unbreakable forms of encryption emerge. If governments are able to harness the power of quantum computing first, they could get a massive advantage when it comes to the balance of power online. For CSOs who deal with rights and advocacy against repressive states, this might be a real concern.

Bye-bye Blockchain?

As a side-note related to what we have just discussed, another concern that has been raised about the development of quantum computers is that it will undermine blockchain technology. Blockchain fundamentally relies on public key cryptography to ensure the security and immutability of the information entered on a ledger, so if this kind of cryptography can no longer be considered secure, that is likely to be a real concern. There may well be ways round this, and people are working on developing ‘quantum blockchains’ that are immune to this kind of tampering, but it is not yet clear to what extent this will work.

The civil society relevance of this is that if blockchain technology is to be used for any of the social good purposes that have been mooted - such as improving flows on international aid money, providing digital identities for refugees, recording social impact data etc. -  then concerns about its fundamental security and long-term viability are pretty important.

Positioning, Surveillance and Rescue 

We have already seen that quantum computing might bring challenges when it comes toonline surveillance, but other applications of quantum technology could also create offline surveillance challenges. In particular, the use of Quantum Accelerometers or Quantum Inertial Measurement Units, to replace existing satellite-based methods of locating people and objects (such as GPS), could radically alter the nature of surveillance. These methods are potentially thousands of times more accurate- down to the level of being able to locate people and objects in individual rooms within a building – and will not be susceptible to the blind-spots that affect satellite positioning systems. For those organisations that have justifiable cause to be concerned about surveillance by government or the private sector - such as groups that focus on campaigning for rights or resisting repressive regimes - this could create a whole host of new problems.

Of course, we should acknowledge that quantum positioning and location technology is not just going to present a challenge for civil society in terms of surveillance. Like any technology it is a tool, and can be used for good or ill. For instance, it could enable organisations that need to deal with search and rescue in difficult environments, such as smoke-filled or collapsed buildings to operate much more effectively and thereby save far more lives.


Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Computing

Another area in which it has been suggested that quantum computing could offer real benefits is in terms of making various forms of machine learning more efficient and effective. (For more on machine learning and civil society, see here). Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence in which self-modifying algorithms are ‘trained’ on vast data sets and over time develop the ability to deliver various desired outcomes. The suggestion is that this training process could be vastly speeded-up by harnessing the power of quantum computing.

There have been some recent signs that this hope might come to fruition: for instance, it was reported recently that researchers had developed a quantum version of a perceptron, which is one of the basic units of a deep learning system. In the longer term, if quantum computing does improve our ability to develop AI systems, then it may accelerate our ability to harness them to deliver genuinely transformative approaches to social and environmental issues.

Simulation and Modelling Complex Systems

OK, so this is where things get a bit more speculative (for those who like that kind of thing…) One of the areas in which some think quantum computers will have a significant real-world advantage over classical, digital computers is in modelling complex systems. By this I mean systems that are themselves governed by probabilistic quantum effects, or are chaotic and non-deterministic in some sense. The suggestion is that computers which operate on quantum principles could have an advantage here, because instead of having to translate the system into a digital model (which would require being able to stipulate the laws governing it), they can simply create a probabilistic quantum model that behaves in the same way and then see what happens to it.

So far, we have seen this kind of approach work in medical science, where researchers have been able to significantly improve their ability to predict the ways in which protein molecules will fold (which is a vital part of drug discovery). There are also hopes that it could be applied to weather systems, and there been some intriguing early examples of researchers using quantum computers to model the basic elements of evolutionary systems.

The truly fascinating longer-term question to my mind is whether this approach could ever apply to systems at the scale of the global climate or human society? Could we, for instance, effectively model our environment or our societies through quantum computing, and then test the impact of various different interventions to determine which is the most effective?

If this was possible, it would be absolutely transformational in terms of our ability to address problems; as we would no longer need to expend resources on trial and error or experimentation. We could simply determine which approaches had the highest probability of delivering the best outcomes and then implement them (thus giving us a sort of Monte Carlo method for complex social and environmental issues).

This idea has its precedents in science fiction. For instance in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, where the mathematician Hari Seldon invents the discipline of “psychohistory”, which enables him to predict accurately the macro-level development of human society into the far future. (Although it should be noted that this proves to be somewhat fallible!) Whilst this kind of vision may still be a distant dream (and may in fact never come to be reality), it is intriguing to wonder whether quantum technology offers the first tantalising glimpse of what might be possible in terms of our ability to predict the behaviour of complex systems in the future, and what this could mean for our approach to shaping society and the environment.

What next, then?

I think that’s about all I can sensibly say about quantum technology and civil society at this point (and some of you may think I stopped being sensible quite a while ago…) As should be clear from what I have said, it is unlikely to have a major impact on CSOs in the immediate short term, and most organisations are even less likely to begin experimenting with quantum tech themselves.

However, it is worth noting that a public dialogue project on quantum technology by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research found that members of the public were by far the most positive about the development of quantum tech when there were clear humanitarian applications or medical benefits. Thus, as with many other emergent and disruptive technologies, there is still a need for civil society to understand what is happening with the development of this technology and the opportunities and challenges it might present. If we do not, the opportunity to take advantage of those opportunities or to play an active role in avoiding the negative unintended consequences may be lost. So for now, at the very least, we should keep a watching brief.

Public Good by Private Means

Rhodri Davies' book tells the story of philanthropy through the ages, and examines the relationship between philanthropists, the state and society.

Place-Based Giving campaign

Understanding and tackling the challenges facing our communities.


Our project to create a world where new technologies and social trends have a positive impact on the future of civil society.