Victor Costan

Victor Costan
Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL photographer

Where did you grow up:

Bucharest, Romania

What was your academic path before coming to grad school at MIT?

I left Romania at 19, for MIT's undergraduate program. I enrolled in the fall of 2003, and graduated in 2007 with two B.S. degrees in Computer Science and Management. I stayed at MIT for one more year to receive a M.Eng. in Computer Science, because I was planning to go in the industry, and getting a Master's degree in one year was a very good discount.

During my M.Eng. year, I worked with Prof. Srinivas Devadas and his Trusted Computing group, and I found that I truly enjoy research. I obtained an M.Eng. degree in 2008, and I started for a year in Google's New York offices, on local search (Google Maps) ranking and evaluation. After gaining some industry experience, I decided to come back to MIT to start a PhD program.

What did you want to be when you were younger? Is that still an interest of yours?

When I was a child, I wanted to be a leader, and order people around. I believe the flavor of the day back then was being a spaceship commander.

Around the age of 9, I saw some cartoons involving programmers, and I decided I want to learn to program computers. I guess I settled for ordering bits around, since becoming a spaceship commander wasn't an option.

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?

I dream of becoming a traveling coder. I'd like to work in different countries, to experience the people and cultures. Potential targets: Tokyo, Barcelona, Shanghai, Moscow, Seoul, Paris, Vienna.

I haven't figured out a way to do that yet, though. (It's probably for the best, because I think I'd disappear from MIT if I found a way to make this dream happen.)

What department are you currently working in, and when did you start there?

I'm working in the Trusted Computing Group led by Prof. Srinivas Devadas. I started working with the group in 2007, during my M.Eng. year. You can check out my group's work here.

What are you working on and why are you passionate about it?

I am working on the Trusted Execution Module (TEM). The TEM is a platform that allows for arbitrary computation, and guarantees the privacy and integrity of the computation. And, most importantly, the TEM works on today's smart-card chips, which are inexpensive and easy to integrate in any computer system. You can read more about my project (or get the code!) here.

I'm excited about my project because it's incredibly liberating. There are many real-world problems that are difficult (or outright impossible) to implement become straight-forward, if we can get away with trusting a small amount of computation. The TEM can help all these systems become a reality.

At the same time, I have to admit I enjoy seeing how much functional programming I can get away with at smart-card conferences.

What is your favorite thing about working at CSAIL?

My research advisor (Prof. Srinivas Devadas) told me "You should work on something that makes you happy. And if you don't, we'll force you to!" CSAIL inspires me and energizes me to come up with new ideas, and at the same time gives me the freedom to pursue my ideas.

What effect do you think your area of work will have on the world in the next decade?

Computers and the Internet have become the building blocks of our race's collective conscience. Today, we use Skype to talk to our loved ones across the globe, Facebook to keep in touch with 500 friends at once, and Twitter to assimilate dozens of news sources in less time than it takes to read a newspaper.

As computer scientists, we have an incredible opportunity right now. We will design this collective conscience, and this lets us have an immense impact over the evolution of our society and civilization.

My work offers a flexible and inexpensive way to bring trusted execution to any computer, be it a full-fledged desktop or a cell phone. I believe this capability will be essential as we start relying on computers to handle our sensitive information, such as health and financial data.

What are your future plans?

I just came back to MIT, so I plan to widen my perspectives as much as possible, enjoy the academic and student life. I also hope to build some cool software while I'm here.

I honestly don't know what's next after MIT. I figure I'll spend at least 5-6 years here, and I'm pretty sure that my perspectives will change in that time. So I'm not going to worry about the next step right now.

What advice would you give a prospective CSAIL graduate student?

If you're applying for Systems, include pointers to your code in the application. During the Visiting Weekend, I learned that the professors here want to see code, to ensure that we have the programming skills to make our ideas happen.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

A professional secret: the Ruby language is incredibly useful in research, for building prototype software. I'm ashamed to admit how little time I spent coding for my Master's thesis.

If you're a programmer, you owe it to yourself to give these a try: (15-20 minutes) (2-3 hours)