The Quantum Revolution Rolls On, and Philanthropy Is Falling Behind

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.

Twenty months ago I wrote an essay for these pages exhorting my colleagues at other philanthropies to join Carnegie Corporation of New York in its initial, exploratory funding of efforts to better understand the far-ranging implications of the "quantum revolution."

What’s that, you say?

This new quantum moment is as revolutionary as the dawn of the nuclear age, which, in Einstein’s oft-quoted line, "changed everything save our modes of thinking."

Chronicling some of the quantum field’s most eye-popping features, I professed that I had become a born-again proselytizer for this cause. It was high time, I argued, for philanthropy to get in on the quantum action and promote the required new modes of thinking in the social sciences.

Now you might be asking why.

My answer starts with the stark fact that quantum inquiry upends our understanding of the nature of matter and energy. It overturns classic Newtonian physics that says atoms are particles and light is a wave.

Quantum theory says, No, they each can behave like the other under certain conditions. Nothing is certain; all is potentiality. And when two quantum particles are somehow connected ("entangled"), any action performed on one affects the other, even if they are very far apart — what Einstein famously called "spooky action at a distance."

When applied to computing, this means that where an ordinary computer processes bits of data one at a time, quantum computing can process entangled bits simultaneously, doing calculations at exponentially faster speeds. A linked network of quantum computers would create a "quantum internet," revolutionizing the way we communicate.

Medicine, Encryption, and More

At the University of Sydney, the innovative, multidisciplinary, Carnegie-supported Project Q is asking important questions. Will the second quantum revolution lead to sentient computer programs, feral algorithms, and nonhuman forms of intelligence? To what extent will quantum applications be weaponized? Are social media and data mining already producing quantum effects in world politics? What new kinds of scientific inquiries will it make possible? What are the philosophical and ethical implications?

Quantum developments could transform our lives, processing "big data" in mind-boggling ways — mimicking huge chemical reactions, for example, to create new medicines and materials.

Quantum discovery could create superpowerful satellites, cameras, and sensors and interlink their data with historical information and on-the-ground observers in real time for battlefield use.

It could crack encrypted data almost instantly and create far better encryption methods. It could also, in the wrong hands, undermine our democracy by flooding our information systems with "fake news" to mislead and control a population.

As I noted previously, investments are pouring in on the technology side — from tech behemoths like Microsoft, Google, and IBM; from major universities; from federal agencies, including NASA and the National Security Agency; from public- and private-sector players, most prominently in China, but also in Australia, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere. The Department of Energy’s 2019 budget proposal allocates $105 million to quantum investigation, citing the "emerging urgency of building U.S. competency and competitiveness" in the field. All these public and private players are cramming to develop a fully functional quantum computer, and in the process, they are finding all kinds of new quantum angles to explore.

Still, despite the huge implications of all this furious activity, the public scarcely knows the field exists beyond vague and often hyperbolic references in popular culture. Foundations are no further along.

Modest Support at Best

As quantum technology evolves at unprecedented speed, philanthropy lags in fostering appreciation for its impact and its potential for both good and ill. Much useful research needs to be done, but social scientists have not generated many projects on this theme. If anyone should be helping scholars and analysts make sense of all this for the rest of the population, it’s us.

But foundations are just not playing their part. The most recent survey of the 65-member Peace and Security Funders Group showed $47 million in annual grant making on nuclear issues and tens of millions more on a host of other security challenges, from peace building to counterterrorism. Quantum study did not even merit a category. Carnegie’s own support for this work remains modest, an attempt to maintain momentum in hopes that others will join in.

There is encouraging news from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which last month announced a $95 million investment over six years for research in "quantum materials" — an important but esoteric subfield that explores ways in which quantum properties can be applied to new technologies — on top of nearly $100 million it had already committed.

But as significant and worthwhile as this development is, it is focused on basic research in the hard sciences. What is still needed is getting social scientists into the game — as they have on other security challenges — to study the effects of such advances on humanity, as highlighted by the far-ranging questions posed by the University of Sydney.

This apparent philanthropic indifference to the broader societal impact of developments in quantum is not only shortsighted, it’s baffling.

Traditional foundations, especially in the field of international peace and security, are continuously searching for ways to be more relevant and cutting-edge. The so-called New Philanthropists, with their funding derived largely from information technology, seem to be on a constant quest for the next shiny new thing. Quantum issues fill the bill for both.

Why is philanthropy not all over this seemingly revolutionary development? One explanation begins with nuclear fission. The image of a mushroom cloud vividly captures that complex process and its implications. Recall that nuclear power was once touted as a civilian energy source so plentiful that it wouldn’t have to be metered, but it was the potential for planetary destruction that lodged in the popular psyche. Among donors active on peace and security issues, including the Carnegie Corporation, it was a fairly straightforward decision to support research to understand and deal with the effects of this potent force.

Quantum potential is much harder to characterize; it has no mushroom-cloud equivalent. As theoretical physicist Michael Nielsen has pointed out, "Everything you’ve ever seen or done in your life, driving a car, walking in the park, cooking a meal ... can be directly simulated on a conventional computer. Not true when explaining how a quantum computer works."

Paraphrasing Nielsen: If this could be simulated on a conventional computer, then it couldn’t be an accurate model of a quantum computer because a quantum computer, by definition, does what no conventional computer can do.

The Challenge of Writing a Grant Proposal

The quantum revolution’s pride of place as a shiny new thing has been overshadowed by other recent developments, especially in artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. These technologies are increasingly and inextricably linked to — even reliant on — quantum issues, but a key difference is that those technologies can be visualized in the form of thinking robots or villainous computer hackers.

While physicists have long recognized quantum theory’s relevance and shine, there is an additional complication facing social scientists that does not apply to nuclear fission, A.I., or cybersecurity. Although we’ve been solving problems with quantum theory for about a century, even natural scientists still don’t really know how it works — and they are unlikely to figure it out anytime soon, if ever. That’s because, unlike classical physics, there is nothing in the observable world that can duplicate quantum behavior. Objects at the subatomic level have no definite state before they are measured; it’s something that confounded even Einstein.

So, a key remaining challenge is how to design a theoretically rigorous and empirically driven research agenda for quantum issues, despite their essentially impenetrable nature. How can a grant proposal be written to persuade a foundation that the implications of this fuzzy phenomenon warrant study and support, given the myriad other security challenges facing the world?

The latest developments in new quantum technologies suggest a rich and consequential research agenda that awaits further investigation and investment. Beyond studies that probe the implications of quantum applications, quantum perspectives — with their counterintuitive reality and recognition of entanglement across time and space — can loosen rigid modes of thinking and help us make sense of the burgeoning international peace and security agenda. Phenomena such as terrorism and populism demonstrate that events in one country can affect those in another. These quantum-like characteristics don’t fit traditional models.

Philanthropy is in an ideal position to support research that applies new, quantum-informed ways of thinking to this agenda. At the same time, it can help explore whether social science can anticipate and suggest responses to a world in which quantum-fueled technologies begin to outpace governmental and even human control. We ignore these questions, and fail to answer them, at our peril.

Despite my initial failure to win converts to this view, I continue to believe that my fellow grant makers will one day share my zeal and find other entry points into the mysteries of quantum. I will remain an evangelist for this cause, even if that requires a leap of faith on my part — quantum or otherwise.

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Stephen Del Rosso is a program director for international peace and security at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

First published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (October 2018). Reprinted with permission of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.