By | November 13, 2023
AI-generated concept image of a quantum processor integrated into a computer circuit.

Quantum computing offers a huge $6 billion opportunity for Australia over the coming decades, but policies need to be made now to ensure its ethical use in the future.

Image: Damian Sobczyk/Adobe Stock

While so much of the civilian world is focused on determining the impact of AI on our lives, at a government and especially defense level, there is a completely different fixation: quantum computing. Quantum computing is nothing new – a two-qubit quantum computer demonstrated the technology’s feasibility back in 1998 – but 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. .

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Australia’s lead in quantum could open doors for information sharing with America

One of the major opportunities for Australia in this space will be its close relationship with the United States. Due to the great value of quantum computing research and technology across both military and civilian IP, nations tend to be more cautious about sharing information compared to conventional technology.

The downside to this is that it means the US can’t tap into the same global talent pool it’s used to. Lack of talent is not such a big problem in mainstream computing because global talent tends to pool and openly share information. However, it is with quantum computing, and that means Australia – as a close ally with an already developed quantum industry – has a real opportunity to draw back US investment and interest.

A good example of this potential playing out occurred recently, when an Australian physicist and his team built a hard-to-detect, super-accurate navigation system for when satellite GPS networks jam or malfunction. It was robust and portable enough to be used outside of a lab. As reported by the New York Times, this technology can guide military equipment, from submarines to spacecraft, for months with minimal risk of misdirection and offers a significant improvement over what is available today.

Quantum computing research goes far beyond defense, of course. The technology has implications in everything from medical research to financial markets and resources. However, the defense applications clearly highlight why America will be closely watching which nations it works with for research and development, and the fact that Australia is already interconnected bodes well for the domestic research community.

Australia’s monumental quantum opportunity

Australia already has a 3.6% share of the global quantum technology venture capital market. The national contributions to this space are already significant: among other things, the Australians created the first integrated circuit computers that work on an atomic scale. This is a computer that could artificially create photosynthesis and the high temperatures required to manufacture pharmaceuticals and solar cells far more efficiently.

Elsewhere, Australian researchers have effectively tackled the challenge of quantum computing’s need for impossibly cold conditions to work efficiently.

The success and ability of Australian researchers in this area led the Australian government to release its first national quantum strategy earlier this year. This strategy aims to position Australia at the forefront 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 very aware of what failure to invest now could mean for this burgeoning opportunity.

“As other nations push ahead, Australia risks missing out on the potential economic benefits,” a University of Sydney report notes. “We may also lose talented workers to countries that invest more in quantum research.

“Projects such as the ambitious attempt to build the world’s first full quantum computer aim to provide local opportunities and funding alongside their overall goals. Additionally, Australia has a responsibility to ensure that quantum technologies are developed and used ethically and that their risks are 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 rising steadily to 19,400 by 2045. These jobs will require the highest technical skills and will provide some of the greatest economic benefits as Australia continues to transition to a high-skills 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 – whose potential threats dwarf 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 secure online,” said Manolo Per, quantum expert at CSIRO’s Data61 Business Unit. “However, experts are concerned that a quantum computer could take as little as 8 hours to break the code.”

It would be one thing if people had access to quantum computers to participate in the “arms race”, but not many will. The have-nots will be very much at the mercy of the “haves”, especially when it comes 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 surrounding the lack of ethical consensus around quantum computing should be raised considerably by now. All of this could happen even though we are many years away from quantum computing reaching the kind of strength where it poses a significant threat like the scenario above.

Australia wants to capture, retain and train as many quantum computing experts as possible, as it will be critical to the nation’s health, safety and security. The initial 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 issue is.

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