Meet Gabi Skoff: Championing a holistic approach to the responsible innovation of quantum technologies
Tell us about your research background and how you started working in the RI FSP.
My research background has been a journey across many different disciplines and fields—from religious studies, security studies, and international relations, to anthropology and development studies, and now innovation studies. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to explore a wide variety of my interests over the years. While these areas of research may seem completely disparate, the thread that pulls through each of them is sociological. I’ve always been fascinated by locating human agency to produce change within social systems.
I encountered responsible innovation while working with Project Q at the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies, where I had been researching and writing about the geopolitical, social, and environmental aspects of emerging quantum technologies for a few years before learning about RI. As the discourse of ‘Responsible Quantum’ began to emerge, I decided it was my moment to go deeper into this area of research if I wanted to impact how systems of quantum innovation were being constructed here in Australia.
Through my work at the Sydney Quantum Academy (SQA) and KPMG on Responsible Quantum in 2021 I connected with CSIRO’s Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform (RI FSP). I’m currently undertaking a PhD at the Business School in responsible quantum which is jointly funded by two of CSIRO’s Future Science Platforms and the Business School. CSIRO’s support for my research has created the opportunity to build a bridge between the RI and Quantum Technologies FSPs and enabled me to work collaboratively with a multi-disciplinary group of researchers.
Coming from a social science background, what was it about RI that interested you?
RI is one of many approaches to minimising harms and maximising benefits of innovation. What drew me to RI, above all else, was the emphasis that it places on meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration from the earliest stages of R&D. One of the biggest roadblocks I see when it comes to the ethical development of technologies is that our educational and professional systems are incredibly siloed. As a result, we tend to develop metaphorical blinkers, which prevent us from seeing the wider context. Tackling challenges posed by emerging technologies like quantum requires a holistic approach to problem identification and solving. And that means a diversity of perspectives—from law, ethics, social sciences, philosophy, the general public and more—need to be included in the innovation process.
At the same time, I’m interested in how the discourse of RI might be employed in different domains. I’m not sold on the idea of a templated approach to applying responsible innovation practices, so I’m curious to see how malleable the concept is and how it might be adapted to suit an industry environment.
What are some of the questions you are seeking to answer from a RI standpoint through your research?
Quantum technologies (and quantum computing, in particular) are at an interesting stage in the innovation lifecycle. We’re now seeing the intentional formation of a quantum innovation ecosystem here in Australia, as well as in many other parts of the world, where government is invested in establishing a strong industry that builds on decades of research funding to the sector. I’m interested in identifying the role that responsible action may or may not be playing in this emerging innovation ecosystem. As RI has predominantly been applied in a research policy setting in Europe, my research aims to understand how this approach might be translated to an industry setting outside of Europe.
Your work has highlighted the importance of education and engagement as an important piece of RI when it comes to quantum. What have you observed as some examples of best practice here?
When it comes to engagement, science and technology communication is fundamental to making quantum more accessible to a broader diversity of people. One way this can be done is by hosting non-specialist-targeted events. I worked with SQA last year to develop a series of events that brought together a multidisciplinary panel of experts to discuss different topics in quantum. For example, our ‘Communicating Quantum’ event was co-hosted with Joan Leach from the Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science at the ANU and featured quantum physicist and author, Chris Ferrie, science communicator and chemist, Alice Motion, quantum physicist and podcast host, Lachlan Rogers, and quantum-inspired artist, Paul Thomas. These events were free and open to the public, and due to the multi-disciplinary nature of both the panel and the audience, the conversation was accessible and wide-ranging.
We’re also seeing some physicists and quantum business leaders getting in front of the public and trying to diminish the haze of science fiction mystique that tends to surround quantum. For example, Scott Aaronson regularly writes about quantum for a general audience on his blog and elsewhere, and local quantum start up Q-CTRL has also developed a quantum learning centre that is free and accessible for non-specialists.
It’s important to note that quantum education and engagement is not just a matter of putting the information out there. By nature of our unequal society, some will naturally have easier access to that information than others. Introducing basic quantum physics education into the curriculum of every school is a no-brainer for me, and a fundamental piece of the puzzle for improving quantum education and inclusion. The Quantum Computing Summer Camp hosted by Qubit by Qubit and SQA offers full scholarships and is a fabulous example of expanding early access to quantum education.
What do you think the value is of embedding RI from the innovation stage of quantum? Is there an opportunity to get on the ground to understand what some of the pressure points of RI might be in the commercialisation landscape?
As mentioned, the application of RI remains strikingly limited to the research policy environment in Europe. There are a growing number of examples of the concept’s creep into other domains and geographies, including the tech industry, but research on the topic is scarce. There is a real need to observe what RI looks like in practice in different places and contexts around the world so that we can understand how to institutionalise responsible technology development on a broad scale. Quantum provides a great case study for exactly this reason, and the development of Australia’s quantum innovation ecosystem presents an important opportunity to track how examples of responsible action may already be occurring at this critical stage when the technologies are moving from an academic research to a commercial environment. By studying RI in the context of Australia’s quantum innovation ecosystem, we can better understand how RI practices might be translated to industry activities.
There’s a growing list of quantum start-ups and we are starting to see increased interest in this space, particularly from governments. What advice do you have to people who are still trying to wrap their heads around quantum technology?
As I wrote about here, you don’t have to understand the ins-and-outs of quantum physics to engage in the conversation. People use computers every day and are beginning to engage on a deeper level with questions of our digital rights and expectations, but do we all know how classical computation actually works on a physical level? Probably not. However, we should be educated about certain, basic aspects of the technology. To continue with the example of classical computation, we should understand what an algorithm is and why digital security is important. With regard to quantum, it’s unlikely that someone will find themselves in a position where they’re having to work through issues of decoherence or understand entanglement. But we should understand what some of the implications for the development of these technologies might be so that businesses, governments, and the general public are equipped to make informed decisions about applying and interacting with these technologies.
I think there is a threshold of information about quantum that is useful to learn, and most of this involves debunking some of the hype claims around quantum computing to better understand what these technologies may feasibly achieve. While some hype is important for motivating investment, too much hype can also present a real challenge for industry to deliver results. So, figuring out what this threshold is and how to effectively communicate critical information without misrepresenting the technological reality is very important.
Finally, do you have any observations Australia’s approach to RI as compared to the US and/or Europe?
The great thing about Australia is that it tends to sit somewhere between the approaches of the U.S. and Europe when it comes to innovation. Australia is a highly innovative nation, and our quantum science and technology research programs have produced some of the greatest minds working in quantum today. At the same time, Australia tends to be more risk-averse than the U.S., and our venture capital and start-up culture reflects that. Culturally-speaking, I think this combination of being innovative yet also risk conscious can actually provide a strategic advantage when it comes to RI. It’s a matter of finding a balance where Australia can provide a supportive environment for innovation but do so in a way that prioritises, facilitates, and incentivises responsible action. If we can nail that, there’s no doubt in my mind that we can be a leader in this space, attract top talent from around the world, and retain our own.