The Quantum Age Beckons

Philanthropy cannot afford to ignore its far-reaching implications

Experimental physicist Michael Biercuk leads a tour of the Quantum Control Laboratory at the University of Sydney. The university is home to Project Q, which explores the peace and security implications of a quantum age.
Experimental physicist Michael Biercuk leads a tour of the Quantum Control Laboratory at the University of Sydney. The university is home to Project Q, which explores the peace and security implications of a quantum age.

For many of us, the term “quantum”—if recognized at all—evokes a hazy recollection of something or other in a long-ago physics class. But quantum is now primed to reassert itself in our collective consciousness, and philanthropic organizations ought to get in on that process right away.

In many ways, we are already living in a quantum world, even if that is largely unrecognized. Quantum theory was central to the development of mobile phones, not to mention lasers, transistors, LEDs, and—most dramatically—the atomic bomb. Just last summer, quantum appeared in headlines announcing China’s launch of a first-of-its-kind communications satellite designed to transmit information that, thanks to quantum technology, is impossible to tap, intercept, or hack.

Quantum presents a ripe target of opportunity for foundations that have long supported efforts to explore and explain complex notions rooted in science.
— Stephen J. Del Rosso

Because of quantum’s promise, big-data companies, governments, and universities are lining up to invest in it. It is also seeping into the public vernacular—in blogs, in films such as Interstellar and The Imitation Game, and in major publications like the New York Times, the Economist, and Time. It’s even at the gym; in my apartment complex, I’ve seen ads for an exercise class in “Quantum Phytness.”

Despite—or, perhaps, because of—quantum’s abstruse but consequential nature, philanthropy cannot afford to ignore its far-reaching implications. Quantum presents a ripe target of opportunity for foundations that have long supported efforts to explore and explain complex notions rooted in science—from nuclear security to climate change—that affect our everyday lives. Moreover, through its grantmaking to scholars and policy experts and increasing interest in broadly disseminating their findings, philanthropy is well-positioned to take on this challenge.

Spooky Action

Derived from the Latin quantus (“how much” or “how many”), quantum typically refers to a revolutionary way of thinking about the organization of the universe. Quantum theory is about the nature of matter and energy. Classical Newtonian physics says that atoms are particles and light is a wave. Quantum theory says everything in the universe has characteristics of both particles and waves. Classical physics posits a rational, mechanical system in which cause and effect are clear and mind is separate from matter. Quantum theory is far more complicated: nothing is certain; all is potentiality.

The 20th century’s most gifted physicists, including Albert Einstein, tested this notion and determined that light can behave as both a wave and a particle. As if that weren’t hard enough to grasp, quantum theory goes on to posit that when two quantum particles are somehow connected (“entangled”), any action performed on one affects the other, even when they are very far apart. Einstein famously dismissed this idea as “spooky action at a distance,” but subsequent experiments challenged his skepticism. In fact, this “spooky action” is behind that Chinese communications satellite—and that has people in the Pentagon, corporate boardrooms, and research labs sitting up and paying attention.

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That’s because quantum’s most promising near-term application is in computer science. Where conventional computers process information in binary form (ones and zeroes), quantum computing uses qubits (quantum bits) that can exist in two states simultaneously and can thus perform two calculations at the same time. Computing power would increase exponentially as the number of qubits rises; a calculation that might take a conventional computer more than a century would take a quantum computer mere hours or less. The mind-numbing implication is that quantum computers could perform more calculations than there are atoms in the universe.

Microsoft just announced that it is placing a big bet on developing its own version of a quantum computer and associated software. Investments are also pouring in from Google, IBM, major universities, and government agencies, including NASA and the National Security Agency, and from public- and private-sector counterparts in China, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere. Everyone is trying different developmental paths to a fully functioning quantum computer. Nobody is there yet, but an international cadre of talented true believers is persevering—and philanthropy should be funding this research as well.

Quantum applications could revolutionize cryptography, chemistry, biology, pharmacology, nanoscience, artificial intelligence, and material science—and that’s just for starters.
— Stephen J. Del Rosso

Here’s why: according to the White House’s National Science and Technology Council, quantum is a “foundational science.” Quantum applications could revolutionize cryptography, chemistry, biology, pharmacology, nanoscience, artificial intelligence, and material science—and that’s just for starters. They could be used to address global hunger by increasing production of fertilizers. They could fight climate change by boosting extraction of carbon dioxide from the air. They could accelerate improvements in the resilience and efficiency of power grids. Already, they are helping us learn more about observable phenomena like photosynthesis and animal migration.

Quantum theory is also making inroads in the social sciences, offering alternatives to concepts borrowed from Newtonian physics, like market equilibrium in economics. And it is having a growing impact on decision theory. In perhaps the boldest extrapolation, Ohio State political scientist Alexander Wendt proposes that human consciousness is itself a quantum process, entangling all of us across distance and time and forming the basis for cooperation and social institutions.

This isn’t just a metaphor. Drawing from both the physical and social sciences, quantum suggests new ways of manipulating our behavior—a prospect that has led physicist Stephen Hawking, philanthropist Bill Gates, entrepreneur Elon Musk, and others to warn of the hazards of quantum-fueled artificial intelligence.

Shock Absorber

“Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.”
— Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate in physics

It is clear, in short, that this possible “quantum leap” could be immensely beneficial, but it could also be easily exploited for malign purposes, threatening the very existence of humankind. Physicist and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr once said, “Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.”

Philanthropy can and should be a critical shock absorber as quantum’s implications become a reality. It could help us better understand the benefits, and the risks, by funding educational and research efforts. It could, as the National Science and Technology Council advises, look at quantum’s effects on “institutional boundaries, knowledge transfer, government, citizen interactions with industry,” and so on, discovering some of the “unknown unknowns” that are always present in developing fields.

Such inquiries would be both topical and forward-looking, helping to counter the lack of general knowledge about quantum theory. If deep understanding is reserved for the cognoscenti, public appreciation of quantum’s significance will be very limited, and incomprehension can all too often devolve into suspicion, resistance, and fear.

Philanthropy is unhindered by the crisis-to-crisis mode of government operations or the disciplinary imperatives of the academy, so it is ideally suited to sponsor investigation into the relevance of quantum approaches today and in the future.

For example, Carnegie Corporation of New York has supported efforts by the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies to tease out some of quantum theory’s many implications. Under the leadership of its director, political scientist and documentary filmmaker James Der Derian, the center organized a Project Q symposium in early 2016, the most recent of three such gatherings. The event brought together an eclectic mix of scientists, philosophers, diplomats, soldiers, scholars, writers, artists, and futurists to, according to its website, “explore the origins, elements, and outcomes of a quantum age,” especially as they relate to matters of international peace and security (like that Chinese satellite).

The gathering featured tours of quantum labs, multimedia panel presentations, and lively roundtables where participants speculated on the assumptions underlying the social, natural, and physical sciences. They shared insights from their respective fields about quantum challenges and opportunities. Interdisciplinary learning, often given only lip service, was the order of the day.

Grantmaking can get ahead of the curve by building the intellectual foundation for greater public understanding of this powerful concept and its many possibilities boding both good and ill.
— Stephen J. Del Rosso

Mr. Der Derian uses insights from quantum theory to analyze the dynamics of the information age. He noted that two decades ago, former Secretary of State George Shultz credited his friend Sidney Drell, an eminent physicist at Stanford, with coining the term “quantum diplomacy.” In international affairs, as in physics, Mr. Shultz remarked, “the process of observation is a cause of change,” and “true reality is hard to record.” Mr. Der Derian and his colleagues have plumbed the ways networked media observe, measure, give meaning to, and amplify that meaning for selected bits of the world’s chaotic and shifting cascade of events—a classic quantum notion. Here is quantum theory as a powerful tool for making sense of a complex and seemingly unfathomable world.

At the dawn of the nuclear age, Einstein lamented that the “release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking.” Arguably, we are at a similar stage with quantum. The public must be educated about developments that are bound to affect the course of the 21st century and beyond. Grantmaking can get ahead of the curve by building the intellectual foundation for greater public understanding of this powerful concept and its many possibilities boding both good and ill.

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After all, what is a grant proposal if not—to use quantum terms—a potentiality whose true state is unknown until its implementation is observed and measured? Philanthropy already lives within a quantum field. It is only appropriate that we recognize that reality and begin to take it on.

First published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (February 2017). Reprinted with permission of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.