In 2014, the Centre for International Security Studies (CISS), with support from the University of Sydney and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, staged a proof-of-concept experiment called the Q Symposium. Held at the former Quarantine Station, Q invited a diverse group of international thinkers and doers to apply next-wave thinking to the most pressing peace and security issues. Scientists, humanists, diplomats, soldiers, and journalists engaged chaos theory to understand events with a sensitive dependence on initial conditions, like a grid failure, flash crash or pandemic; complexity theory to provide insights into adaptive and self-organizing actions, like transnational social movements, drug trafficking or climate change; and quantum theory to explore observer-dependent events like natural disasters, regime change and diplomacy.
The primary focus was on ‘quantum effects’, or observer-dependent global events that phase-shift with media interventions, from states to sub-states, local to global, public to private, organised to chaotic, virtual to real and back again, often in a single news cycle. This appropriation of quantum ideas to better understand global politics was hardly novel. Over thirty years ago, Secretary of State George Shultz and theoretical physicist and arms control expert Sydney Drell while working in the Reagan Administration to bring about a reduction in nuclear weapons, coined the term ‘quantum diplomacy’ to describe the difficulties of understanding and negotiating complex security issues under the unblinking eye of the media:
My views on the media’s role in foreign affairs are heavily influenced by the notion of “quantum diplomacy,” for which I must credit a physicist friend at Stanford, Sid Drell. An axiom of quantum theory is that when you observe and measure some piece of a system, you inevitably disturb the whole system. So the process of observation itself is a cause of change. That is all too often the case when a TV camera is right in the middle of some chaotic event, trying to capture its essence objectively. Quantum diplomacy holds that true reality is hard to record.
Media has since gone social, increasingly visual and truly global. Quantum effects have infiltrated the farthest reaches of diplomacy, warfare and statecraft. But now there is a difference: innovations in quantum computing, communications and intelligence elevate the wave function from the microphysical to the macrophysical and from the metaphorical to the actual. In a world of many possible worlds, this means there is no single essence or true reality to capture or to record, only multiple probabilistic states that collapse into a single actuality upon observation.
There is a boundary, an event horizon, as it were, from which the knowledge needed to understand such issues rarely escapes: they are called academic disciplines. However, not one but two interdisciplinary Quantum Centres of Excellence as well as a high concentration of non-traditional security studies scholars in Sydney and nearby universities provide the critical mass for a rigorous investigation into the strategic, diplomatic, and ethical implications as quantum moves from the microphysical and metaphorical to the macrophysical and actual.
With the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, CISS has instituted ‘Project Q: Peace and Security in a Quantum Age’, which is composed of four research and policy areas corresponding to four annual symposia that will be distributed through multiple media:
- Q1 examines how sensitive, relative, and dependent the global events driving world politics are upon observational, theoretical, and practical interventions
- Q2 asks why the radical disjunctures of WWI, WWII and quantum theory changed everything but, pace Einstein, our way of thinking about international peace and security
- Q3 investigates the most recent developments in quantum mind, matter and metaphysics, and the peace and security implications in a quantum age
- Q4 will consider intellectual, ethical and policy guidelines for when quantum computing, communication and intelligence go operational
The Q Symposia are speculative and exploratory but reality-checked by a reflexivity grounded in philosophical and historical inquiry, field experience and thought experiments, cinematic imaginaries and dreamtime.