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Workshop Exploring the Role of Hype in the Future of Quantum Technology

Telling sensationalised stories, exaggerating benefits and understating the risks: creating ‘hype’ about something doesn't sound like something a responsible scientist would indulge in. Or could we also use hype in a ‘good way'? What could we achieve by opening up quantum futures for wider discussions, and do we need hype to do this exercise? This was all explored during the workshop Exploring the role of hype in the future of quantum technology, on 24 April 2023.

This workshop was organised by Julia Cramer, Joris van Hoboken, Pieter Vermaas and Sanne Romp. 

Keynote lecture Tara Roberson: Can and should we use hype for quantum? 

The day started off with the keynote lecture by science communicator and social scientists doctor Tara Roberson. First, there had to be consensus about the definition of hype: a broad term that can be defined in many ways. For example, it could be defined as simplified, sensationalised stories to the public. Another definition is the exaggeration of benefits and an understating of the risks. Hype is often deliberate. People decide to communicate about one topic over another, to gain and maintain support and set priorities. Therefore, it could very well be a self-fulling prophecy, as it identifies expectations and motivates change. 

Roberson: ‘Gerard Milburn was the first who coined the term “quantum technology” in 1997. More recently in quantum, we’re moving towards the idea of: “We’re building this technology before we understand it” and “we’ve decided it’s worth building”.’

Using hype in a ‘good’ way

According to Roberson, there are two ways in which we can use hype in a ‘good’ way: 

1. By engaging in promise-requirement cycles. Use recalibration, to avoid disappointments. 

As an example, researchers in quantum sensing noted that they are being more careful not to promise too much due to previous hype of quantum computing. They felt pressure to deliver due to previous hype. 

2. By convening new conversations, where hype can be used as invitation. 

Think about what could we achieve by opening up quantum futures for wider discussions? Do we need hype to do this exercise? Can we think about quantum and additional perspectives, to reach a more diverse audience? Can we choose not to use hype anymore? Is it good or bad? Maybe we need to move away from it. 

When is the hype over? 

When does something stop to be a hype? In grant applications, we see a lot of hype, as researchers need to excite and be convincing that they should receive funding. Once the research is performed and a paper appears, there is not really hype anymore.

Panel discussion

Carlo Beenakker Professor Theoretical physics
Deborah Nas Centre for Quantum & Society
Ton van 't Noordende Investor
Hannie van den Berg Artist

All four panellists think that there is no quantum technology hype, but for very different reasons.

Deborah: 'Not a lot of people know about quantum technology, it’s only a small community. There is only a small part of the community that know about quantum technology and think that it is hyped.'

Ton: 'We need to touch the emotions to make people excited, but we are not there yet. The pool is tiny while the options are profitable. In NL and Europe we don’t hype at all. There are different funding possibilities. Only a fraction of the money in the EU goes to quantum, in comparison to US and China. The Netherlands is not leading economically. We are leading in terms of policy and ethics.' 

Hannie: ‘We need to open up and think about more scenarios for the future of quantum technology. The role of art can be to empower, find meaning and go for radical imagination.’ 

Carlo: ‘Quantum technology is a good technology that can only be used for good. There should be no fear and we can benefit more from unrestricted funding.’ 

Question: How should we talk about the ethical, legal and societal aspects (ELSA) of quantum technology, while it is not even here? And how do we make the distinction between quantum 2.0 and its predecessor quantum 1.0 (phones, MRI scanners, etc)? 

Deborah: ‘We need to trigger people for something new. In news articles, we don’t need to talk about 1.0, but in general stories usually people do start with an explanation of 1.0 before moving into 2.0.’ 

Pieter: 'We see movies and literature as art. It is a spectrum or an in-between domain. Think of ethics, they are needed to assess technology.'

Carlo: 'Art inspires, but we should be careful to not go towards more spiritual ideas. Artists ask questions, but they give no answers.'

Hannie: 'Imagination and curiosity are important, those are the starting point. 
Deborah: We can also use ChatGPT for future scenarios.' 

Ton: 'Ask questions that were never dared to ask.'

Deborah: 'If we can’t envision applications, we make the ELSA conversation really difficult. Think of future scenarios. Eternalise the one who created it.'  

Carlo: 'AI and gene editing. Quantum will happen. There is no risk to quantum technology. The risks are political in nature.'

Eline: 'You never get a second change to a first impression. We aware of that in quantum. We are not convinced that this technology deserves "my attention".' 

Ton: 'Here you see underhype. We need to start sending out messages.'

Group discussion impact of hype

The second half of the day, the group used break-out sessions to focus on two topics regarding hype and its impact on the ethical, legal and societal aspects of quantum technology.

Group discussion 1 - How to use hype to increase public engagement in quantum technology?

The group defined hype as: the induction excitement though simplified unbalanced views.

Who is responsible? The media plays a role. Not click-bait or fun and not sensationalising, because that goes against the drawing in and then normalising of the technology. It is the responsibility of the teacher, to help understand, reflect and induce critical thinking. 
Funding influences how the landscape develops. We should be careful to use terms like ‘Race’ or ‘most amazing technology’. 
To improve this, communicators need to collaborate and be realistic. We need to monitor fears and companies need to openly share.  

Hype should help to spark interest, start conversation, influences trust in science and hype-triggered responses. This will get more nuanced discussions. 

Open questions remain: Where does hype start and end? Is it context-dependent?

Group disscussion 2: What are useful scenarios to research ethically? And what scenarios are useless to consider?

The main point for ethically useful scenarios is that they have to be meaningful/sensible. The group designed a 2x2 matrix with on the x-axis sociotechnical possibilities (low – high) and on y-axis stake (low - high). 

If a scenario has a low sociotechnical possibility and a low stake, we can discard those scenarios. An example is how quantum computers are going to better predict the weather. As quantum computers will likely not be useful for this problem, it is best to discard this scenario. 

On the high sociotechnical possibility, low stake side, we have scenarios that are reasonably important to study ethically. An example is a small step in sensing capabilities that only affect a very small group of specialists.  

On the low sociotechnical possibility, high stake, we have visionary ideas. For example, the scenario that quantum computers can bring world peace. They can do this because connecting quantum computers results in a more powerful quantum computer, so countries would want to connect their quantum computers to one another. These scenarios might sound useless (being too visionary / optimistic), but they are reasonably important to study ethically because of the high stake involved.  

Finally, the scenarios that should get the most attention to study ethically are the high sociotechnical possibility, high stake scenarios. Those are for example the design of new medicines, as the stakes involved can be very high and it’s often seen as the very first application of quantum computing.

Julia Cramer: ‘The discussions and open questions during this day show that the topic of hype considering quantum technology and its ethical, legal and societal aspects needs more attention. We are very happy with the engaged participation and will definitely follow up on this topic!’

Also read the recent blog from Robseron and Cramer: Will quantum technologies live up to their hype?

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