How to regulate quantum technology before everyone understands how it works

Lawmakers, physicists, software engineers and end users need to find a common language and set some rules.

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

Rob Heverly is an Albany Law School professor and one of nine 2022 Fellows for the National Science Foundation’s Center for Quantum Networks. 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 policy makers oversimplify technology when trying to write regulations. He has already heard misconceptions about quantum computing.

“People say quantum networking will let you send immediate communications regardless of distance and that’s not how it works,” he said.

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

“Instead of focusing on the way in which fraud happens over the internet, just make a fraud law,” he said. “Look at conduct and forbid those things.”

SEE: Quantum computing ecosystem expands in all directions 

He makes a distinction between cyber crime, which requires specific laws, and more general activity such as libel.

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

Setting guardrails for the quantum internet

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

He suggested the quantum fellows review how policy makers and national security officials have interacted with new technologies in the past. The Clipper Chip project provides an example of how not to approach cybersecurity. In 1993, the National Security Agency suggested that all encryption run through a particular chipset. Two government agencies would hold the keys in escrow and would have to get judicial approval to decrypt communications.

“As people were fighting back and forth about the idea, somebody essentially hacked the chip,” Heverly said. “If it had been required, there would have been a ton of tech susceptible to intercept.”

The Center’s goals are to build a quantum internet that meets these two criteria:

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

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

  1. What regulations are needed in terms of how law enforcement can access information sent across the quantum internet?
  2. How can we ensure individual countries or governments do not obtain sole jurisdiction over quantum internet regulation?

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

“More people working together in good faith could maybe come up with regulations that would do the things we need them to do without having unexpected consequences,” he said.

In thinking about the history of tech regulations, Heverly also used the example of Section 230. The goal was not to protect sites that post sexual photos of a person without his or her consent, but that’s been the unintended consequence of the law.

“The law has been really broadly applied, not just to those who would make the internet less rough but those who would make it more rough,” he said. “Now, trying to dial it back is really difficult.”

The same is true with quantum computing.

“Until quantum networking is out there and entrepreneurs start doing stuff with it, we won’t be able to say what it can do,” he said. “But if you create really strong encryption to be used over networks and make it widely available, people are going to do bad stuff with it.”

Bridging the communication gap

Part of the challenge of regulating new technology is that the stakeholders–users, developers, regulators and national security experts–don’t all speak the same language.

“I was talking to a physicist about how I am 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 in it and you can’t,” he said.

One way to bridge the gap between lawmakers and researchers is to find an expert who can translate complex topics for a general audience and encourage that individual to take on a spokesperson role. That isn’t as easy as it sounds, he said.

“Being the public face is not always good for your research career,” he said, “Sometimes your colleagues ask why are you dumbing down our ideas?”

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