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Interview with Dr. Chuck Easttom, Director, Quantum Computing and Cryptography Research Lab

So long bits. Hello qubits. Welcome to the world of quantum computing. The Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo defines the term as “essentially harnessing and exploiting the amazing laws of quantum mechanics to process information.” The fascinating field is helping to make possible what was once thought to be impossible.

In the following interview, Dr. Chuck Easttom, one of Capitol’s professors, shares all – from his background, to his inspiration, to the latest trends in quantum computing. The upcoming Fall 2019 semester ushers in several new projects for Dr. Easttom, including a new lab and a new book.

Q: What interested you in Capitol Tech, both as a doctoral student and as a professor?

CE: In both cases, the same thing: first and foremost, a student-focused system. I have, unfortunately, seen universities that seem oddly ambivalent to student needs, but that is not the case at Capitol. Secondly, constant innovation. Some of our newer degrees like critical infrastructure and unmanned and autonomous systems are examples of that.

Q: Can you explain quantum computing to me in laywoman’s terms?

CE: Traditional computers store data as bits in some form of 1’s or 0’s such as a transistor being on or off. Quantum computers store data as qubits in the quantum state of something such as a photon’s polarization. While the qubit when measured will produce a 1 or 0, until that measurement, it can contain an infinite superposition of states of 1 and 0. This makes qubits much more effective at certain tasks, tasks which incidentally will be able to break the commonly used public key cryptography algorithms, including RSA, Diffie-Hellman, MQV, ElGamal, and ECC.

Q: You have a new lab coming online at Capitol, the Quantum Computing and Cryptography Research Lab. Fill us in on what inspired you to create the lab, your goals, and the desired impact. How can students and community partners get involved?

Dr. Chuck Easttom photo

CE: First, I completed my dissertation on post-quantum cryptography. I am now supervising a doctoral student who is examining another area of post-quantum cryptography. I began to see increased interest in these topics from students. The purpose of the lab is to provide a focal point for students and faculty to conduct research. The lab also enables collaboration with other universities. Any student or faculty member who would like to be involved in quantum computing research should email me – The lab covers both quantum computing and cryptography, so if you wish to work on non-quantum related cryptographic research, also feel free to contact me.

Q: What is some of the latest research in quantum computing, and what research areas are you working on? What are some of the real-life implications of your work?

CE: On the physical side of quantum computing, the research focuses a great deal on stabilizing the qubits so that a stable, practical quantum computer can be obtained. Other areas of research include quantum algorithms (the US Army is currently accepting grant proposals in this area), quantum information theory, and cryptography. My own work is focused on algorithms, cryptography, and quantum programming. The real-world implications are several. First, work on cryptography that would be resistant to quantum computing attacks. Also, I am devoting more time and effort to work in quantum information theory, which is applicable even in a classical computer world.

Q: Recently, I read a ScienceAlert article that discussed how the rules of gravity could be intrinsically linked with building quantum computers. Sounds intriguing. What are your thoughts?

CE: One of the initial reasons that quantum computing was first pursued was to address problems in quantum physics. Quantum physics and gravity are closely related. In fact, there are theoretical models of gravity such as quantum loop gravity. I have begun working on some of these issues, and later this year will be presenting a talk entitled “Space-Time and Gravity as Emergent Quantum Properties” at a physics conference in Zurich.

Q: I hear you are releasing a new book this fall, your 27th one. Can you give us a sneak peek?

CE: This is the fourth edition of my book, Computer Security Fundamentals, from Pearson press. It has been widely used as a textbook at colleges and universities. This edition is, of course, updated for recent trends, but also adds a new chapter on cybersecurity as a systems engineering discipline. That is another area I have been working on.

Q: Your background is impressive: a bachelor’s degree, three master’s degrees, a doctorate, and another doctorate in the works; 45 certifications in the field; numerous scientific papers; 16 computer science patents; a host of memberships with professional associations such as IEEE and ACM; and much more.

For our students, can you give us a sense of your journey early on that enabled you to get to this point? Did you always know you wanted to become a computer scientist? What were some challenges you faced along the way?

CE: Thank you. As to the degrees, I enjoy learning. Sometimes I just pursue learning on my own terms. In other cases, it is appropriate to pursue that in a formal educational context. In fact, I am pursuing several additional graduate degrees right now. I am working on a second doctorate: Capitol’s own PhD in Technology, focusing on bioengineering and nanotechnology. My dissertation topic is “The Effects of Nonlinear Dynamics on Nanotechnology and Bioengineering,” and I will be starting a master’s program in nuclear power in January. I truly just love learning.

As to the work, I simply love what I do. I focus on the research and learning, and the patents, papers, and other things simply come from that. So the most critical advice I would give students is to focus on the learning, the knowledge. The rest will come on its own. I did not always want to do computer science, but I knew I wanted to do science. When I started as an undergraduate, I intended to pursue neuroscience. So now, I am doing work in AI/machine learning and collaborating with the IEEE Medical and Biological Engineering Society so I can combine that interest with computer science.

I don’t see any of the work as a “challenge” in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, there are things to learn, and some topics can be somewhat difficult to master, but I find that to be so joyful that it does not feel like a challenge. Now being completely candid, constantly pursuing degrees can be a rather expensive “hobby,” but thankfully, my wife is supportive. Similarly, industry certifications can become expensive. Now, I try to limit myself to certifications that either I have heard are particularly challenging, or that I have a specific need for.

Q: Who do you look up to?

CE: I admire the writing styles of Sir Roger Penrose, as well as the late Carl Sagan. Francis Crick is probably one I would most like to emulate. He worked in several diverse areas, including genetics, neurobiology, and the nature of consciousness. Like many people in scientific disciplines, of course, I have always admired Albert Einstein. But that one is probably rather common. 

Q: What advice would you give students who seek to pursue a career in quantum computing? What is the job market like right now?

CE: There will be a lot to learn. Before you can do anything at all meaningful, you will need to have at least a knowledge of linear algebra, basic quantum physics, computational theory, and algorithms. But don’t let that deter you. Just because something may be difficult does not mean you shouldn’t pursue it. Quite the contrary. That is one of the things that makes it worth pursuing.

As to the job market, it is growing fast. More and more companies are becoming involved in quantum computing in some form or another. As of July 2019, there were 1,908 jobs on LinkedIn related to quantum computing. And this is likely to increase substantially in the next decade. Also quantum computing has related fields such as AI, algorithm analysis, and cryptography.

Be sure to stop by and visit Dr. Easttom in the new Quantum Computing and Cryptography Research Lab this fall to learn more about how you can get involved!