Project Q

Quantum Philanthropy: The vital role of social science research in quantum futures


Many Silicon Valley philanthropists see poverty and inequality as an engineering problem, and their own brain power as the solution.

Image via The OCR

Gabriella Skoff

As Stephen Del Rosso argues in his recent article for the Carnegie Corporation, The Quantum Revolution Rolls On, and Philanthropy Is Falling Behind, more funding is needed to support quantum research in the social sciences in order to foster “appreciation for its impact and its potential for both good and ill”. Del Rosso explains that while funding from government and from the private sector are at pace to support the rapid developments in quantum technologies, advances in the social sciences are not keeping up due to a lack of investment. Del Rosso argues that philanthropy is the answer to this quandary and writes with urgency, cautioning that this is not a technological transformation that we can afford to overlook at this critical stage in research and development.

In the U.S., where a culture of philanthropy is very much a part of the social and scientific fabric, enabling research in both of these domains, quantum philanthropy seems to be lagging behind. Del Rosso points to the rather amorphous and hard-to-pin-down nature of quantum. Unlike AI or cybersecurity, quantum does not manifest a particularly threatening image because it is difficult to visualise its ultimate applications. As such, even though gaining the lead on quantum technologies is a pressing security concern for the competing superpowers, it has not been a funding priority for social impact research and foundations. Herein lies the problem that Del Rosso presents to us: “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 funding of multi-disciplinary research into emerging technologies is not a novel suggestion. In fact, social science research into cybersecurity and nuclear issues are markedly well-funded and the debate around artificial intelligence turns up a host of dedicated research foundations. What stands out, says Del Rosso,  is that this financial fervor is not being carried across to quantum research.

While some may assume that social research into the area of science and technology can hamper progress in those fields, this argument is unfounded. In fact, social impact research has the potential to make systems run smoother, more ethically and sustainably, giving an advantage to a science and technology environment that takes a long view rather than a short-term perspective.  Furthermore, in America, the development of quantum technologies (and also artificial intelligence along with other emerging technologies) for military and security applications is heavily reliant on the brain power of the tech community. This dependency may very well turn out to be a weakness for the U.S. DoD, should these developments prove to be applied in unethical or harmful ways.

If Del Rosso’s call to action is answered, then philanthropy can help fill the ‘ethics gap’ and help direct quantum applications toward beneficial ends.  As the only major research project focused on the  social and strategic impact of quantum innovation, Project Q, with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, will dive into the topic at the its annual Q Symposium, “The Quantum Race: Parallels, Promises, Perils” February 21-24, Project Q will bring together quantum physicists, social scientists, philosophers, government officials and industry experts to debate the potential risks and benefits of quantum innovation for the future of humanity.

 

 

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