EPISODE TRANSCRIPT: Quantum Computing
August 22, 2022
You’re listening to the Berkeley Technology Law Journal Podcast. I’m Seth Bertolucci.
And I’m Isabel Jones. On today’s episode, we sit down with a quantum physicist and an attorney specializing in technology law and human design to discuss the science behind quantum computing and this technology’s legal and ethical implications on the law, economics, and society.
We’re on the precipice of a quantum revolution. Quantum computing – that amazing type of computing that harnesses the power of quantum physics, and specifically, quantum states – brings the world not just abstract scientific theory but practical applications that will likely revolutionize our day-to-day lives. Quantum computers may well be able to transform the development of new drugs as they can more accurately simulate complex chemical interactions at a molecular level. They might be able to forever change cryptography and blow past existing cybersecurity infrastructure to access the most sensitive of personal, business, and even government secrets.
Quantum computing – like all other new technologies – operates in a rapidly shifting legal framework that attempts to incorporate the technology into existing frameworks for intellectual property or international security. On today’s episode, we sit down with a quantum physicist and an attorney specializing in technology law and human design to discuss the science behind quantum computing and this technology’s legal and ethical implications on law, economics, and society.
First, I sit down with Joonas Keski-Rahkonen who is a postdoctoral researcher for the Heller Group at Harvard University. His research in theoretical and computational physics comprises the study of the classical and quantum nature of chaos, transport phenomena in nano- and mesoscopic structures, and the development of simulation techniques. Joonas has published four papers and is a member of the Finnish Physical Society.
Afterwards, Katri Nousiainen and I discuss how lawyers, regulators, and the international community can prepare for the next quantum revolution. Katri is a lawyer, professional in legal education, and fellow at Harvard Law School. She gives expert legal lectures on various practice areas of commercial law, law and economics, legal design, and law and technology. She is also an invited keynote speaker at conferences and seminars across the US, Europe and Latin America. In addition to her work at Harvard Law, she is also conducting her research at the University of Cambridge Law. Her research focuses on law and technology.
Thanks for tuning in and we hope you enjoy the conversation!
Katri and Joonas, thank you for being on the podcast with us today. I wanted to start off with kind of an introduction of quantum computing. And so Joonas, I was hoping that you could explain just for our listeners who have never even heard of quantum computing before, in a nutshell, what, what is it?
That’s actually a very tough question to answer in a few minutes. Actually, there are like a thick textbooks, and two semester courses on the topic. But I can try to summarize the main point. Basically, in a nutshell, quantum computers are devices that harness the properties of quantum mechanics to store data and perform computations, which can be extremely advantageous for certain tasks, even outperforming the best supercomputers we have right now. And this is actually called quantum advantage. Whereas classical computers, like smartphones or laptops, encode information in binary bits being either zeros or ones. The basic unit of a quantum comparator is called a qubit, which can be a zero and one at the same time. This real property of qubits is what gives quantum computers their inherent parallelism, basically meaning to conduct many tasks at the same time, and hence giving an edge to solve some complex problems better than a classical computer.
So as things stand right now, how close are we to having a scalable, fully functioning quantum computer?
For time being classical technology seems to handle any task thrown at the quantum computer in a pretty similar fashion. So, there’s no huge difference. But on the other hand, based on some companies, such as IBM and Google, we are on the verge of achieving true Quantum advantage, basically performing some task using quantum computers that are like that cannot be done using classical computers. So, software-wisely we are there, but hardware-wisely, we are lacking a little bit, but I think this will change soon, actually, in a few years.
Can you give us an example of a task, you know, done with a quantum computer that would just be vastly superior to that same task being done with an ordinary computer, even a supercomputer?
Google, for example, mentioned that they generated random numbers better than classical computers, you get like a true randomness using quantum computer. Whereas a classical computer, for example, there’s always an algorithm basically, there’s always a rule. So, it’s not true randomness that appears. To other tasks that is well known is this kind of like finding prime numbers really, really difficult property to do. But the quantum computers can do it very, they outperform like classical computers. But we are not there yet actually. There existed a code for it, but we don’t have machine for it yet actually.
Then who, you know, in terms of companies or institutions, or individuals, are leading this space today? So who’s at the vanguard of quantum computing right now.
Right now, I will say that there are like three giants like IBM, Google and UCL. However, there are actually hundreds of companies working on how to make quantum computers reality. And the number is just increasing all the time. It is hard to make predictions since the field is evolving so fast, actually, only time will tell us.
Yeah, it seems like it’s evolving extremely quickly. So, at the point, when there is a fully functioning quantum computer, do you think that that will make classical computing obsolete? Or is it different can classical computing and quantum computing coexist together?
So, I would say with 100% certainty, quantum computers won’t overthrow classical computers totally. Even though quantum computers have a great potential for many applications, there will be also plenty of situations where quantum computer will always lose, or the quantum pulls we get will be a minor compared to the to its classical partner. So my hunch is that the future computers are going to be like hybrid devices where we are using quantum computers to solve only problems that are too hard for classical computers and other tasks are done using classical old school computers like laptops right now actually.
That’s interesting. So, it would almost be a quantum computer and a classical computer built into the exact same machine. Am I getting that right?
Exactly. That’s, that’s what I’m referring to. And that’s how it’s done. Okay, actually, right now, quantum computers, they do like one kind of calculation. And still we need classical classical computers to read the data from quantum computers, analyze the data from quantum computers, and so on.
So, what are the biggest roadblocks right now that quantum physicists, like yourself, are facing in their attempts to innovate and scale up and make the technology more applicable?
So currently, the biggest roadblock for the triumph of quantum computing is the fragile nature of qubits. Basically, qubits are the basic units of quantum computers. So environmental factors such as thermal noise, cosmic rays, and so on, we render a qubit into a boring, old-fashioned classical bits. And these unwanted features, collectively known as decoherence actually, will kill delicate quantum features we rely on to get this quantum advantage. So that the quantum computing devices, still have the ability to shield their quantum states from decoherence, while still preserving their easy to operate, ability. At the moment, researchers are exploring multiple possibilities to overcome this challenge of decoherence, whether it will be more robust, error tolerant quantum processors, or better ways to correct and mitigate errors in a computer or both, only time we will show us.
So if I’m understanding that right, you have a quantum computer that’s in an ideal quantum state to basically perform these operations if you have the qubits, and then even something as simple as a cosmic ray, or any sort of interference can kind of knock the computer out of that that state?
Yes, exactly. So, it produces different kind of errors, but we also lose this kind of quantum, we lose our quantum-ness that we rely on. So, it will behave like a classical computer. So if you act so called decoherence into the quantum computer, you get like very boring classical computer.
What are the main innovations that you foresee occurring in the near future with quantum computing?
I will quote the famous physicist and pioneer…Richard Feynman, he mentions that the quantum computers are like ultimate simulators of physics. So I will say that a quantum computer can simulate the behavior of physical systems and chemical reactions at the new level.
And this is actually happening right now. And this can actually convert and translate into discovery of novel chemical reactions, or cutting edge materials, that for example, we use for next generation batteries, biofuels, solar panels, etc. Other applications will follow up actually, when quantum computers scale up in the nearby future, I would say.
So just the nature of the technology and of the data processing is so much more sophisticated than even a supercomputer now that it can just simulate these kinds of very complex states and chemistry or physics, that current computers can’t touch at the moment basically, right?
Yes. So basically, I will say that quantum computers are better simulator for physical systems, in many sense that they are faster, they are more accurate, and they can be more, basically, they are more efficient, but they can be more or less costly, actually, because you can do everything at once in a short timeframe.
And you mentioned this in your last answer. But could you just kind of tell us a little bit more about the applications of quantum computing in chemistry, specifically?
In chemistry, it is usually rated to be able to model chemical reactions, we want to find a better way to produce certain kinds of compounds, for example, for that we need better catalysis. And using quantum computers, we don’t have to make these components and actually figure it out what is the reaction in the class or something like that, or in a lab, you can actually simulate, like thousands of different kinds of scenarios at once. And that’s like conventional chemistry, but also in biochemistry, they actually try to figure out like how proteins that are like building blocks for life, how they fold, and that’s like a super hard question. And current computers, even supercomputers, they cannot actually handle that, but the quantum computers will be
like a natural way to figure it out how proteins are folding. And that can have like huge implications on medical science. We can find better cures. We can find a cure even. And we can understand the mechanism behind certain kinds of diseases and symptoms and syndromes.
Yeah, it seems like it would touch on a huge variety of areas, anything that’s using chemistry biopharmaceuticals or the like. Could you give us any more just kind of concrete examples of an area where applying quantum chemistry would revolutionize an industry?
So, I would say like biofuels and batteries. I think batteries are, for example, a great example. So, we want to have better batteries. Because right now, we are making this clean transition, we rely on wind power and solar power so it’s fluctuated, depends on the weather. So, we need better batteries to somehow regulate energy fluctuation and current batteries are not up to that task yet. Another like great example of quantum computers is like if you have like huge amounts of data. So, analyzing data in a fast manner, that’s something we can do with quantum computers. There are already like, certain algorithms for that. And we are never going to run out of data.
That I’m sure of. Joonas, thank you so much for explaining this. And I’m sure we could talk about this topic all day. But I’m going to pass it over to my co-host, Isabel, who’s going to ask Katri some questions now.
Joonas and Seth, thank you for giving us a great overview of the current state of quantum computing. Now, I want to transition to discussing the regulatory framework in place, or lack thereof. And Katri, you’re working on a paper discussing the second quantum revolution and its implications in the legal field. Can you tell us a little bit about that, please?
Yeah, sure. So, the research for this paper started in early 2020. And during the years 20, and 21, the research has been conducted at the UC Berkeley Law, and at the University of Cambridge, in the UK and in France. And currently, we are conducting the research at the Center on the Legal Profession and the Department of Physics in Harvard together with Joonas. And this paper that we are currently conducting, it is an interdisciplinary work, where we say that law intersects with quantum computing. And the prospective work, the intention of it, is to give a general overview to the law community of quantum computing within the framework of law, economics, and society. And in addition of giving a general introduction to the field, the paper also introduces a novel approach to quantum computing, by discussing it in the legal design, but also within law and economics context.
How do you think quantum computing compares to other developing technologies, like artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, in terms of its importance and how it’s going to be regulated, how that might look different? And then do you think there are any special legal and public policy concerns with quantum computing compared to these other technologies in general?
We have never seen a similar pace for ground-breaking technological breakthroughs as right now. So, I will say that not surprisingly, there are several developing techs with high expectations, and quantum computing and quantum technologies surely are one of them. And like with other new innovations or platforms, there are legal and ethical issues relating to the utilizing of quantum computers on an everyday basis, just as the security matters you mentioned. But I would also like to mention that the key point is that regulators, they should be aware of possible implications and be proactive to take necessary precautions. And this is especially the case with cybersecurity, and quantum safe encryption, of course, in a way, because we want to see that we can still keep our own privacy.
So how do you see regulators, how can they be proactive, when a lot of the technology isn’t developed yet?
I think in here, we should probably bridge more between academia and the business life, to be able to see what are those things that we want to safeguard for? What are those goals that we want to achieve, so that we would not actually impede innovation? So, I think there are certain areas where we definitely can take precautionary and anticipatory measures, like within the security matters. And here, I think the bridging between research in the academia and the business would probably be one of the key tools to answer your question.
So Katri, you mentioned that we don’t want to stifle innovation, while also thinking about these ethical concerns, how do you see commercial actors and regulators kind of working together to strike this balance?
Well, I would say that, in addition to cybersecurity, quantum computing is expected to play a role in pharmaceutical discoveries and, as Joonas already mentioned, that is thanks to the quantum expedited research process. But this is, of course, just one example of the IPR regime that will be affected by the quantum speed up. However, with the faster process from an idea to innovation, and finally to a product, it is very likely that we will see a shoot up in patent and other intellectual property rights claims. But as we know, early bird gets the advantage. And eventually, the winner might take it all, which can be problematic. And this is something that regulators probably want to bear in mind. And I would say that this illustrates the demand for up-to-date legal regulation. But like in everyday life, we have to find balance here. As with regulation, one has to take into account the famous big picture, the whole framework. For instance, this is the case with banking and financial sector, where quantum computing can be used, for instance, to forecast the trends in the market. However, we should always also be aware of the fact that these financial tools and other tools, they are always product of human design. So, we can expect that they are not always really fully objective in their nature. And in order to avoid biases or, even the worst case, discriminatory practices, we should definitely keep in mind, the human centricity within legal matters. And this is somewhere where regulators and especially lawyers can step in. And in particular, lawyers are in an important position in assessing the validity of the tools which are being employed at the intersection of law and technology in order for us to design a just society. In my personal opinion, I think it is not enough that we raise descriptive views. But also, I would say that normative assessment should be conducted from the legal perspective.
That’s really interesting what you said about how these biases can be kind of enmeshed in the quantum computing system itself. I know that current classical computing sometimes has similar problems of discrimination. Would that be exacerbated by quantum computing? How do you see combating discrimination and enhancing equity in both types of computing?
Oh, that’s an excellent question. Well, I’m a really big fan of legal design approach which has its foundation on human centric design. So, I think we have the correct timing here right now. And we are able to affect how these new technologies, how they will be built and how they will be designed. And if we will be applying legal design approach, I’m actually claiming that we are able to design, create, and build better products and tools that would actually take the human centricity into account and hopefully, through that, we are also able to impede these kind of discriminatory practices, and actually boost and foster more equal standing and more access and more ethical products. So, I think by taking the legal design approach from the really beginning into account by building these tools, we are able to affect what kind of tools and programs we actually build. So, I think in here legal design could bring a lot of benefits on the table.
Yes, it sounds like a lot of other technologies could have benefited from this legal design approach. But, I’m really curious about how this could play out on an international stage in terms of international equity between different countries. I know it seems as if countries that are more, have better resources are more so at the forefront of quantum computing. And how do we keep in mind countries that may not have the resources to keep up with this emerging technology, and making sure they don’t get left behind with the quantum revolution?
Well, I would say that naturally, the possession and the employment of new technologies, it creates opportunities, but also responsibilities. And there is a demand surely for inter-governmental legal rule framework and surveillance in certain research areas of quantum computing to ensure worldwide peace and security. But as me and Joonas, we are both working within academia, we are the big fans, of course, of the idea for having more equal access for these new technologies. Simultaneously, we are aware that they are certain areas where probably this kind of a surveillance will be needed. And there will certainly be questions of deeper, I would say functional collaboration and a legal framework between sovereign states to take a legal precaution also for the accessibility matter. But as I mentioned, we have certain research areas, where more I would say, careful precautionary measures are needed in order to prevent the abusing quantum technologies just as applying it for, for purposes to produce war materials or harmful other dangerous applications. But I think, at the same time, a solution could be to establish a legal collaborative framework for, let’s say, mandatory reporting or supervision, in order to ensure the international peace and security but at the same time to accessibility, for most of the states, hopefully, all of the states. For instance, this kind of mandatory reporting supervision, it could be realized in a form of a certain kind of a Security Council or of a union of sovereign states, which are all ideally, of course, committed to the same goals of security and sustainability. And ideally, these member states of this kind of a union or Security Council, they would represent comprehensively the sovereign states, and not just, of course, the few power ones, but rather more equally the sovereign states of the world. And I believe that we could learn from the past in order to ensure the future peace and security. The former challenges with international organizations and the supervisory bodies should be converted into knowledge to better take those anticipatory and the precautionary practices. And this can also serve for providing more equal access for these new emerging technologies.
So based off some of the other experiences that we’ve had in regulating technology on an international level, what are some more concrete examples of lessons you think we could learn from past mistakes and how we can do better for quantum computing?
Well, I have to say, I’m a big fan of United Nations. I think they do really important work. And United Nation has been in many regards a great success. However, for instance, maybe we could bring on the table, the United Nations Security Council, that unfortunately has in some instances, been a bit toothless when there has been incident on the security and the peace of the humankind. So maybe from the practices of the current United Nations Security Council, maybe we can learn from there, that it might be better to have more countries involved in a more equal standing on decision and guideline and rulemaking. Because often we are able to see that the politics are playing a big role, for example, when technologies and other things are being decided. And of course, we cannot totally disregard politics and the way that the world is being organized. But, I would wish to see maybe there being more equal standing for these new technologies. And maybe we can learn from the past from the Security Council actions, that how we can do it even better for the future. And we know collaboration, that is possible, we have seen it, for instance, when it comes to some international treaties. Nice example we can find from the environmental treaties, where countries were able to agree. For example, for emissions, what are the cost of emissions and how we can trade them, maybe on this kind of practices, we can learn something that we can apply for new technologies.
I wanted to touch on something you mentioned earlier about creating equity with regards to accessing the information. And I was curious about if you had any ideas on how the international system or nation states themselves could incentivize the democratization of quantum computing technologies and encourage this type of information sharing, especially with heavy private investments in this technology?
Of course, we support the concept of open ideas which can be fundamental for driving principles for science. However, it is understandable that companies, they should have the right to secure their IPRs. But then here, we should also find the balance. What is the right balance between private incentives and the public incentives? Furthermore, there can be national security interests to be factored in. For instance, with cybersecurity. Well, as we know, it might not be always in everyone’s incentives to actually reveal what is the current state of quantum computing where they are currently stating what is their status. So, we have to be aware that different operators might have different kind of incentives and how these incentives can factor in when we are actually talking about information sharing of these new technologies.
So, in terms of national security interests skewing incentives over information sharing, that’s a really interesting point in that quantum computing can be used as a tool to surveil other countries or break codes. What are some of the cybersecurity risks from quantum computing developing more quickly in some countries, and these countries getting to quantum advantage before others?
I think as with all the technologies, we have to be aware that different operators have different incentives. They can be commercial interests, or they can be security incentives as you mentioned. It is interesting in a way since, as Joonas already brought up, quantum computing, it might give the opportunity for operators that might not maybe operate within the best moral incentives on their mind. So, these are all situations where states can take precautionary measures, for example, to secure their classified information. That classified information can include, for instance, information that is crucial for the existence of the state. It can be counterintelligence information. It can be trade secrets. It can be any information or knowledge that is intended to keep classified for a longer period of time. And this is the state where operators can take the precaution to make sure that this information or knowledge that they intend to keep secret will also stay secret for as long as they wish. And this is the state where actually this kind of security protocols are framing in. So already now companies, operators, states, they can take these anticipatory and precautionary measures to safeguard the information to actually stay safe, the same way that it’s now. As Joonas already brought up, we actually have the tools already existing. But now it’s more the questions that what needs to happen for companies and the states to actually take these measures to save their data and save the privacy.
So now that it’s kind of in the hands of states and companies, how can lawyers who work in tech law play a role in helping prepare their clients for this incoming technology?
Well, first of all, lawyers can take the precaution already in listening on your podcast. But I will say that for lawyers, it is important to understand how the quantum computing how it will affect the different fields of law, whether it be for example, accelerating discovery process in pharmaceutical fields. Because as we proceed up, we are expecting to see that there will be probably increase of patent and other intellectual property claims through this acceleration of discovery processes. Furthermore, we are also expecting that, when companies, for instance, are claiming for more on IPR portfolios, that it will increase also the value of the companies. And this might be, for instance, really interesting for M&A lawyers, when they’re conducting due diligence, and when they’re estimating and valuing the value of a company, for example, in merger and acquisition processes. So, for lawyers, it is crucial to understand how and why the field is changing, and, and how it can, for example, affect the value of a company. And what are those things that needs to be taken into account. And this is, of course, crucial for instances M&A, with IPR, with competition law. Because the more we are seeing more claims being filed in the IPR field, we can probably expect that that will give incentives for companies to try to raise the monopoly position, or at least, market dominance. And these are things that lawyers should be aware of.
Well, Katri, thank you so much for coming to speak with us today. Do you have any final thoughts to leave our listeners with about what to look out for next in quantum computing, and what the legal fields can anticipate in the near future?
Well, I think lawyers themselves, they should not be scared of innovation and new technologies. These new technologies, they will not take their work, they hopefully will just help their working. Even though there will be naturally a lot of new things that we have to be aware of. But we would take it as more as a beneficial advantage that will bring a great incentive for the future innovative processes, and we are probably going to see more decrease in transaction costs in business what is of course, always welcomed for lawyers. So, I wish lawyers will welcome the new technologies, and hopefully do not impede it by excessive regulation. We should all work together to find a good balance for having a regulation and share a playbook, if we say that. As always, collaboration is the key here. So, we can learn from the past, we can learn from different fields of science, we can hopefully bridge more between academia and the business life. And I think that collaboration, that is something we should definitely entrench more and that is how we can make sure that these new technologies are being used, employed in a manner that is hopefully gives the access to most of the people in the world and of course within ethical and moral manner.
Well, thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with us. We so enjoyed it.
Thank you so much for having us.
Yeah, thank you for inviting us.
Thank you for listening. The BTL J podcast is brought to you by podcast editors Seth Bertolucci and Isabel Jones. Our executive producers are BTL J Senior Online Content Editors Karnik Hajjar and Thomas Horne. BTLJ editors in chief are Loc Ho and Natalie Crawford.
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