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Global quantum institute proposed for Geneva

A coalition of science, diplomatic and industry partners announced plans for a global institute for quantum computing that equitably shares the new technology.

A high-level political roundtable on the last day of GESDA's second annual summit
A high-level political roundtable on the last day of GESDA's second annual summit included, left to right, United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Public Education and Advanced Technology Sarah Bint Yousif Al-Amiri, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis and Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (AN/GESDA)

GENEVA (AN) — A coalition of science, diplomatic and industry partners announced plans to open a global institute for quantum computing that aims to equitably share the new technology so it does not remain concentrated in the hands of only a few rich countries and tech giants.

The proposed Open Quantum Institute, set to launch in Geneva within five years, emerged from the second annual summit of the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator Foundation, or GESDA, that drew more than 1,000 participants, half remotely, over three days and ended on Friday.

Quantum computers take advantage of quantum mechanics, the laws of physics that govern the behavior of matter at the tiniest of scales. They process information as elementary particles, such as electrons and photons, unlike classical computers that process it as a stream of bits that are either a zero or a one.

The main processing units in a quantum computer, qubits, can exist as a combination of a zero and a one, with each outcome having a certain probability of being true. In this superposition, like a coin on its side, either value can be true until the qubit is measured. Then it will settle on one of two values: zero or one.

Though they are not general-purpose computers, and will in some cases offer no advantage over current technology, quantum computers hold the promise of solving complex problems in seconds or minutes that might take today's supercomputers days or months.

At the foundation's second annual summit, GESDA, an independent nonprofit foundation and private-public partnership created three years ago with the Swiss and Geneva authorities, also announced plans for a major initiative that involves the creation of a global curriculum on science diplomacy, an emerging interdisciplinary field.

The foundation says it intends to establish anticipatory science and diplomacy as an academic subject, a mindset, and a new professional vocation. In May, GESDA's Science Diplomacy Week, which involved 20 Swiss and international institutions, began shaping the global curriculum through a weeklong immersion program for 30 participants from 20 countries and an open public forum with hundreds of onsite and online participants.

The summit featured an inaugural high-level political roundtable in the auditorium of Geneva's Campus Biotech, where Swiss President Ignazio Cassis held a hybrid in-person and virtual session with ministers from Estonia, Mexico, Morocco, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. They welcomed GESDA's presence in Geneva and emphasized the role that science and technology play at a time of war in Europe and other global crises.

"GESDA is not a substitute to the legitimate actors of governance," Cassis told the summit, "but rather a tool at their disposal, a tool that aims at helping them to reinvigorate multilateralism, to focus global governance on the central challenges of our times, of our time, to develop ways and means to build convergence and construct a shared sense of purpose. This is very much needed today."

'Science fiction' becomes reality

The Swiss president and Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan — both trained medical doctors — also met on the summit's sidelines for bilateral talks focused on science and technology, including GESDA's two proposals to create the institute and a global curriculum.

Peter Maurer, a veteran Swiss diplomat and humanitarian who ended his 10 years as International Committee of the Red Cross president at the start of this month, said the need to better understand rising complexities is readily apparent in modern battlefields, particularly in Russia's war against Ukraine, where the military strategies reflect aspects of cyberspace, space-based intelligence, and digitally enhanced weapons loaded with artificial intelligence.

"My impression is we have been overtaken by speed and what was science fiction two years ago is already a reality today, and therefore it's much more urgent,” Maurer told the summit in a keynote address.

"This is a new environment in conflict areas," he said, "and it is important that we take into consideration what we can do as a diplomatic and science community in order to create and recreate the space again to see what kind of norms and principles can be applied in this new environment of modern warfare."

GESDA's Board Chair Peter Brabeck-Letmathe said the Swiss foundation "was created to put the scientific community at the heart of multilateralism" and described its anticipatory science diplomacy as a powerful new tool but acknowledged it "cannot be a substitute for political decision-making."

Seeking 'inclusive growth'

Students from around the world also showed interest in anticipatory science diplomacy, including some that joined the summit through a pilot digital initiative from South Africa led by University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor Mamokgheti Phakeng, a GESDA board member.

One of those students, Bekithemba Ntoni, a master's candidate in international relations, said the post-World War II multilateral era failed to consider the full socioeconomic impacts of emerging new technologies.

"So then the question becomes how do we make sure that we don't repeat the injustices of the past?" he told the summit. "How do you make sure that we appropriate these technologies in order to make sure that we foster inclusive growth?"

Governments and businesses will invest US$16.7 billion in quantum computing by the end of 2027, research firm International Data Corporation forecast last year. The quantum institute's founding partners include tech giants Microsoft and IBM and institutions such as the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, along with the University of Geneva and Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich (ETH) and Lausanne (EPFL).

Morroco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita explicitly expressed his government's backing. Twelve academic institutions in Switzerland and around the world plus eight businesses active in quantum technology assured GESDA of their support, while 12 nations' diplomatic missions in Geneva have also participated.

'Positive impact for all'

GESDA, whose mission is "to use the future to build the present," said the new institute will ensure that everyone plays a role in the quantum journey and can access its benefits. It also launched an Impact Forum and Fund to draw public and private financial support for its initiatives.

Equally important, it said, is the hope that quantum technology will be used to further the anti-poverty, inclusive agenda of the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, which have been badly set back by the COVID-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine, and other global crises.

CERN Director-General Fabiola Gianotti, a GESDA board member, invoked Geneva's role as a hub for scientists to communicate worldwide. CERN, created in 1954, was one of the first inter-European organizations to emerge after World War II, and has since grown to include 11,000 researchers as of the end of 2021.

“As it did for the creation of CERN, Geneva can play a key role in bringing science and diplomacy to recognize the importance of working together, in order to develop real-world applications for transformative technologies,” Gianotti said. "We will work to ensure that quantum technologies have a positive impact for all of society."