Quantum computing offers a massive $6B opportunity for Australia in the coming decades, but policies need to be made now to ensure its ethical use in the future.
While so much of the civilian world is focused on determining the impact of AI on our lives, at a government and, particularly, defense level, there is an entirely different fixation: quantum computing. Quantum computing is nothing new — a two-qubit quantum computer demonstrated the feasibility of the technology back in 1998 — however, the stakes are astronomically high when it comes to ongoing research in this space, and Australia is poised to be at the forefront of it.
Australia’s lead in quantum could open doors to information exchange with America
One of the big opportunities for Australia in this space will be its close relationship with the United States. Because of the sheer value of quantum computing research and technology across both military and civilian IP, nations tend to be more circumspect about sharing information in comparison to conventional technology.
The downside to this is that it means the U.S. isn’t able to draw on the same global pool of talent that it’s used to. A shortage of talent isn’t such a major issue in regular computing fields because global talent tends to pool and openly share information. However, it is with quantum computing, and it means that Australia — as a close ally with an already developed quantum industry — has a real opportunity to piggyback off of American investment and interest.
A good example of this potential playing out arose recently, when an Australian physicist and his team built a hard-to-detect, super-accurate navigation system for when satellite GPS networks are jammed or do not work. It was robust and portable enough to be used outside a lab. As was reported by the New York Times, this technology could guide military equipment, from submarines to spacecraft, for months with a minuscule risk of directional error and offers a significant improvement over what is available today.
Quantum computing research goes well beyond defense, of course. The technology has implications in everything from medical research to financial markets and resources. However, the defense applications of it highlight clearly why America will be closely guarding which nations it works with on research and development, and the fact that Australia is already linked bodes well for the domestic research community.
Australia’s monumental quantum opportunity
Australia already holds a 3.6% share of the global venture capital market for quantum technology. The national contributions to this space are already significant: Among other things, Australians created the first integrated circuit computers that operate at an atomic scale. This is a computer that could artificially create photosynthesis and the high temperatures required to manufacture drugs and solar cells significantly more efficiently.
Elsewhere, Australian researchers have been effectively tackling the challenge of quantum computing’s need for impossibly cold conditions to operate effectively.
The success and capabilities of Australian researchers in this area led the Australian government to release its first National Quantum Strategy earlier this year. This strategy seeks to place Australia firmly in the leadership ranks of the global quantum industry by 2030, by “encouraging research, applications and commercialisation.”
SEE: Discover if quantum computing is right for your business.
The government is keenly aware of what failure to invest now might mean for this fledgling opportunity.
“As other nations push forward, Australia risks missing out on the potential economic benefits,” a report by the University of Sydney notes. “We could also lose talented workers to countries that are investing more in quantum research.
“Projects like the ambitious attempt to build the world’s first complete quantum computer aim to provide local opportunities and funding alongside their top-line goals. Moreover, Australia has a responsibility to ensure quantum technologies are developed and used ethically, and their risks managed.”
According to the National Quantum Strategy, the goal is for quantum computing to add $6.1 billion to Australia’s GDP by 2045. This will create 8,700 jobs by 2030, before steadily rising to 19,400 by 2045. These jobs will require the highest levels of technical skill and will return some of the greatest economic benefits as Australia continues to transition to a high-skill, knowledge-based economy.
Deep ethical questions still need to be answered
Despite the potential boost to Australia’s economy and IP, quantum computing is being flagged as the next big debate for ethics in technology — the potential threat of which dwarfs what even AI poses today.
“Even the most powerful computers we use today would take thousands of years to break or weaken the encryptions that keep our personal data safe online,” said Manolo Per, quantum expert at CSIRO’s Data61 Business Unit. “But, experts are concerned that a quantum computer could take as little as 8 hours to break the code.”
That would be one thing if people had access to quantum computers to participate in the “arms race,” but not many will have that. The have-nots will be greatly at the mercy of the “haves,” particularly with regard to state actors.
And, given that the debate around ethics in AI has proven to be weak, if not a resounding failure, the red flags around the lack of ethical consensus with regard to quantum computing should be firmly raised now. This can all happen even though we are many years away from quantum computing hitting the kind of potency where it poses a substantial threat like the scenario above.
Australia wants to capture, retain and train as many quantum computing experts as possible, as it will become essential to the nation’s health, security and safety. The first steps shown in the National Quantum Strategy are an encouraging sign, but as with so much in Australian politics, the long-term success of that strategy will largely depend on how bipartisan the subject is.