Blending EE with CS: an Interview with Isaac Chuang

Isaac Chuang

Professor of Electrical Engineering, Physics

Q. How would you contrast your own education as a physicist and electrical engineer from that which you see students experiencing here in EECS?

Ike Chuang: As a freshman at MIT, twenty five years ago, I remember being thrilled to see a few connections materializing between apparently disparate subjects, like the differential equations of 18.03 suddenly being used to describe circuits, in 6.002. Today, in my role as a teacher here, I find students being almost continually amazed by deep connections between courses, probably because they now address broader topic areas (eg computer science and electrical engineering) all at once. EECS students at MIT today see an enormous breadth of ideas, from medicine and biology, to information systems, and devices. Now, for example, courses exist, where one can learn about energy, or quantum information, or robotics (eg. 6.01), topics which clearly transcend the borders of traditional disciplines. I would love to be an undergraduate here again, today. …Maybe I should apply for admission.

Prof. Ike Chuang meets with students in the Quanta Lab in Building 26. From left to right, Shannon Wang (Physics graduate student), Charles Herder (SM '09), EECS graduate student Tony Kim (seated), and EECS graduate student Amira Eltony (standing right).

Prof. Ike Chuang meets with students in the Quanta Lab in Building 26. From left to right, Shannon Wang (Physics graduate student), Charles Herder (SM '09), EECS graduate student Tony Kim (seated), and EECS graduate student Amira Eltony (standing right).

Q. As a leader and faculty member of three research groups (Quanta Research Group, Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics Group, and the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms), how do you find that the blend of electrical engineering and computer science is obvious (and/or seamlessly blended) in both your research and as you work with colleagues within and outside MIT?

Ike Chuang: Computer science and electrical engineering (of the kind at MIT — which is very much applied physics) are essentially linked in our research in quantum information.

Pure computer science concerns itself with a mathematical world of problems which was — until recently — thought to be completely independent of the constraints of the physical world. Quantum information has radically changed this idea, by showing that certain problems can be solved much faster or slower, depending on the laws of physics employed. Thus, for example, computers made with single atoms, or single photons, which harness laws of quantum physics, may be exponentially faster than ordinary “classical” computers, which are based on classical electrodynamics. Turning this around, quantum information also shows how many microscopic natural processes can be viewed in terms of computers — how the universe is a large computer, essentially.

I believe that quantum information science at MIT flourishes, in no small part because of the unique blend of computer science, engineering, and physics, which we have here. For example, students in my research group take both hard-core CS courses (computational complexity theory, and advanced algorithms), and hard-core EE and Physics courses (atomic physics, nonlinear optics, semiconductor devices). This is because mastery of both areas is needed for progress in interdisciplinary areas like quantum information.

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