How can the UK regulate and protect its burgeoning quantum sector?

Quantum technologies have the potential to revolutionise our world in ways we can hardly imagine.

Quantum technologies include:

  • Quantum computers capable of solving problems that are currently intractable with classical computers;
  • Extremely accurate quantum clocks which might be used in GPS and other navigation and time-sensitive systems;
  • Quantum simulators with potential applications in drug discovery and materials science; and
  • Highly sensitive quantum sensors with potential applications in a wide range of fields such as medical imaging and environmental monitoring, the possibilities seem endless.

However, with such great power comes great responsibility, bringing growing concerns about the potential ethical implications of these technologies. The UK is grappling with how to develop a regulatory framework that ensures the ethical use of quantum technologies whilst ensuring that the UK enjoys the economic benefits that such technologies will surely deliver.

This article looks at the UK government’s quantum strategy and, in particular, its goal of creating an ethical and effective regulatory framework. This will govern the development and use of quantum technologies in the UK.

The UK’s quantum strategy

Wishing to capitalise on the development of these technologies, and build upon previous investments in the sector, such as 2014’s National Quantum Technologies Programme, the UK government recently announced its National Quantum Strategy, which includes a £2.5bn government investment in quantum with the intent of attracting significant additional private investment on top. Announcing the strategy in March 2023, Michelle Donelan MP, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, set out the UK’s ambition to “make the UK the home for cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs, the best place in the world to start and grow a quantum business, a leading voice in the international quantum and tech community, and a magnet for international quantum talent.”

Core strategic goals

The national strategy sets out an ambitious ten-year plan which aims to cement the UK’s leading position in quantum technologies with four core goals:

  • Fund new frontiers of quantum research;
  • Support and develop the UK’s quantum sector;
  • Prepare the wider UK economy for the quantum revolution; and
  • Ensure the UK leads internationally in quantum technologies’ regulation & ethical use.

To deliver these goals, a new Office for Quantum will be established whose objectives will include:

  • Reporting progress on delivery to the National Science and Technology Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister;
  • Establishing a strategy programme board, composed of the lead delivery departments to govern the implementation of the national strategy;
  • Publishing an annual report on progress made on the implementation of the strategy, priority actions, and a long-term vision for the sector;
  • Broadening and deepening independent advisory structures, including expanding the remit of the Quantum Strategic Advisory Board to cover the implementation of end-to-end strategy; and
  • Working closely with the quantum industries representative body, UKQuantum and other key industry and professional bodies.

Leading quantum regulation

The national strategy describes how new technologies can give rise to emerging regulatory challenges and how to prepare for future challenges, early engagement is needed to debate the shape of future national and international regulation. In the quantum sector, early work is underway to identify potential risks associated with the use of new quantum technologies and to develop shared taxonomies, languages, and principles to guide their future development. In time, new standards, benchmarking, and assurance frameworks will help to set requirements for interoperability and to measure key performance indicators.

The government says that the regulatory framework must champion the transparent and ethical use of quantum technologies and be:

  • Stable, coherent, and predictable;
  • Agile enough to move quickly with technological development;
  • Simple to understand and inexpensive to implement;
  • Where possible, co-designed with industry; and
  • Focused on innovation and industry needs.

With this in mind, the government has commissioned the Regulatory Horizons Council to undertake a regulatory review of Quantum Technology applications. Output from this review will be a work programme designed to guide the evolution of proportionate and pro-innovation regulation for the sector.

In terms of a quantum regulatory framework, the review will include monitoring and reviewing the impacts of current controls on the sector, as well as any future changes to regulation, including the National Security Investment Act 2021 and export control regimes. The government does not go into much detail beyond mentioning the protection of intellectual property, and cyber security; however, other areas expected to be reviewed include product safety rules, data protection and privacy. And building on successes in financial services and in other sectors, the government plans to launch regulatory test beds and sandboxes which will enable academics and developers to innovate by testing different quantum technologies in a safe environment free from regulatory risk.

Protecting the quantum sector

Existing guidance government guidance (for academia and for industry) supports the sector in making risk-based decisions. These balance security with opportunity and navigate nuanced risks around state threats and the risks to collaboration through carrying out enhanced due diligence on partners, identifying high-risk research or organisational key assets, and implementing appropriate security governance and risk management.

The guidance includes advice on undertaking security audits and mitigations with accredited risk consultants. In addition, there are three main frameworks in place currently, protecting the sector:

The Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) ATAS applies to all international students and researchers (apart from exempt nationalities) who are subject to UK immigration control and are intending to study or research at postgraduate level in certain sensitive subjects (i.e. where knowledge could be used in programmes to develop Advanced Conventional Military Technology, weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery). Researchers and students in these sensitive subjects must apply for an ATAS certificate before they can study or start research in the UK.
The National Security and Investment Act (NSIA) (2021) The NSIA gives the government powers to scrutinise and intervene in business acquisitions, such as takeovers, that may pose national security risks. The Act requires particularly sensitive acquisitions to be approved by the government before they are completed, including acquisitions in quantum technologies.
Export Controls The UK’s export control regime is designed to regulate the export of goods and technologies that could have military or dual-use applications, and ensure that they are not used for purposes that could harm national security or violate human rights. Whilst there are currently only a few specific controls targeting quantum technologies themselves or the goods designed for research and development of such technologies, it is possible new controls may be introduced in the future as the technologies mature and their impacts are understood.

Other focus areas include the development of guidance and requirements around risk mitigation, technical standards, and assurance processes. At this relatively early stage in the development of quantum technologies, the strategy remains light on the kind of detailed regulatory regime that we can expect.

However, if a parallel from the UK’s proposed approach to regulating Artificial Intelligence can be drawn, a business-friendly, pro-innovation, and principles-first approach can be expected.

As technology matures, and the successful technical solutions in particular areas become clearer, more detailed regulations, standards, and guidance will no doubt prove necessary.

Tim Wright
Fladgate LLP

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