Quantum Computing

Quantum Science Communication Can Be Scary Too

Insider Summary

  • A Leiden University-led study looked at how people communicate about quantum science and technology.
  • Among the findings: speakers often focus on the scary aspects of quantum technology, quantum computing is mostly the focus of the conversation.
  • Experts tend to explain the underlying quantum concepts and discuss risks and challenges, while non-experts tend to focus more on the potential benefits of quantum science and technology.

With headlines ranging from revolutionizing computing to disrupting cryptography, quantum science and technology is receiving increasing attention. However, science communication experts are increasingly concerned about how quantum science and technology is framed in popular communications.

In one study, a team of researchers led by the University of Leiden conducted a content analysis of 501 TEDx talks to investigate how quantum science and technology is described and communicated. The researchers saw several potential problems related to the popularization of quantum science and technology, including the tendency of speakers to frame quantum science and technology as scary and enigmatic, with about a quarter of the conversations analyzed using that language. This framing can contribute to a confused perception of quantum science, making it appear inaccessible or intelligible to the general public.

Leiden University doctoral student Aletta Meinsma, who is the study’s first author, said science communication is important for the emerging quantum field.

“We want to understand how to engage in social dialogue around quantum technologies,” says Meinsma university release.

The researchers found that only about half of the talks explained the quantum concepts underlying quantum 2.0 technology, such as superposition, entanglement, or contextuality. This lack of explanation can hinder the audience’s understanding of the basic concepts behind quantum science and technology, leading to misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

Quantum technology is also often narrowly framed in terms of public goods, with six times more talk of benefits than risks. This positive bias can ignore potential ethical, social, and security issues related to quantum science and technology, leading to an incomplete understanding of the implications.

The study reveals that there is a strong focus on quantum computing in the talks, with other quantum technologies receiving less attention. This unbalanced representation can result in an incomplete and skewed perception of the wider landscape of quantum science and technology, which includes areas beyond computing, such as communications, sensing and simulation.

Interestingly, the researchers, who published their findings in Quantum Science and Technology, found differences in communication patterns between quantum experts, such as quantum scientists and industry leaders, and non-experts, such as scientists from other disciplines and artists. Experts are more likely to explain the underlying quantum concepts and discuss risks and challenges, while non-experts tend to focus more on the potential benefits of quantum science and technology.

The findings of this study highlight potential issues in the popular communications of quantum science and technology, even though they are not dominant in TEDx talks.

The team says further research is needed to understand the impact these communication patterns have on public perception of quantum science and technology. Improved communication that addresses these issues could contribute to a more accurate and informed understanding of the promise and challenges of quantum science and technology among the general public, according to the researchers.

Meinsma said he hopes the findings will inform how scientists communicate about quantum to the public.

“My ambition is for scientists to examine for themselves how they can bring their stories in a way that benefits the public,” says Meinsma. “For example, not only talking about the benefits, but thinking more broadly about the benefits as well as the risks. In this way, we can create more support for quantum technologies before they even exist.”

To conduct the study, the researchers first downloaded all the transcripts of the TEDx talks collected and checked whether each transcript contained the keyword ‘quantum’. They deleted transcripts that did not mention quantum, resulting in a total of 1002 transcripts. They then discarded the transcripts without English translation, leaving 796 conversations automatically transcribed and 184 conversations transcribed manually. Researchers also reviewed the remaining content to ensure mentions of quantum refer to quantum science or quantum technology and not just popular culture references, for example.

Finally, researchers rely on coding — a technique scientists use to systematically analyze content — which consists of two phases based on a predefined code book.

The research team also includes Sanne Willemijn Kristensen, W Gudrun Reijnierse, Ionica Smeets and Julia Cramer.

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