Tech Talk

by Ian Aldrich
A conversation with a 2021 Sokoloff Prize winner Tristan Brigham ’22
Tristan Brigham ’22 had a busy summer. He did an internship on artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, and machine learning at the Azimuth Corporation, a software company that specializes in national security. Then there was his Applied Science & Engineering Program externship through New York University (NYU), which thrust the 18-year-old Scottsdale, Arizona, native deep into the world of cybersecurity. Finally, Brigham, a 2021 recipient of the Kiril and Kate Sokoloff Prize, used his $2,500 award to equip a class of underprivileged young teens with computers and teach them the basics of programming and internet safety.
 
“I like to be ambitious,” he says with a laugh. [The three things] didn’t really fit together but I thought, let’s try it and see what happens.”
 
A lot did.
 
It’s the very beginning of your senior year. What are you looking forward to the most?
There’s so much. After the last couple of years and what we’ve been through with Covid, I’m just looking forward to spending my last year with all my St. Paul’s friends before we go off into the world.
 
What has the School meant to you?
Everything, pretty much. It’s funny. I actually just saw my brother Sebastian walk by. He’s the class of ’24 and it reminded me of the connections my family has here. My dad and two uncles also went here and seeing the lifelong connections my dad, especially, developed, that’s pretty special. That’s something I know I’m going to cherish. It’s also fostered a lot of independence and pushed me to become a self-starter.
 
Beyond just being part of a generation that grew up online, how did your deep interest in technology come about?
I’m diabetic and for the last 13 or 14 years I’ve had an insulin pump attached to me. From a young age I was like, how can I get around this? I'm 10 years old — I don't want to think about how many carbs I'm eating and all that stuff. So I got into reading about people who were doing something called pump hacking, which involved creating their own software that could automatically increase the insulin when their blood sugar was too high and decrease it when it low. From there I got into cybersecurity hacking, coding, those kinds of things.
 
Let’s talk about your summer. What kind of work were you doing on machine learning and AI?
I created a computer vision project for license plate readers and it was super exciting. I’m a nerd in that regard. But being able to create a program, to write say 500 or 600 lines of code that tell the computer to take a video, find the license plates in the video and read what they say is really amazing. I did not think I would be doing anything like that without a Ph.D.
 
Did it change how you think about AI and machine learning?
Of course! I hadn’t realized the tools available to us right now actually make creating AI algorithms super easy. There are benefits to that but it also scares me to think that these powerful tools are so easy to use. That drives me to educate people younger than me and create better tech for securing our world.
 
Cybersecurity was the focus of your NYU externship. What was at the heart of your work?
A computer’s operating system is what interfaces the different parts of the computer and in order to control everything, it employs bits of code called system calls to communicate its instructions. But there are more than 700 system calls in a typical operating system and one erroneous line can open holes for attackers to exploit and gain access to the machine. Because many of the most sophisticated attacks over the past decades have exploited issues with these system calls, the Secure Systems Laboratory at New York University is attempting to create a software that analyzes other programs for issues before allowing their execution in the regular system environment. It’s called Lind.
 
What’s a good analogy for this?
Think of the computer’s system calls as different car engine types. Before distribution, a car company can only test a car’s engine to a limited extent. However, as people use the cars, issues may come to light that were not caught by the testing process. The more it is used daily by people across the world, the more likely it is for issues with the engines to make themselves known. In turn, the company can fix these issues. One can think of “popular paths” the same as the engines in the more popular cars. They have been tested in the wild more and can be thought of as more reliable and safer — just like the system calls.
 
How do you plan to continue this work here at SPS?
I’ll be verifying the efficacy of the Lind system [and] communicating with the SSL lab routinely to keep them updated with my progress and modifying Lind’s code if vulnerabilities are found. I’ll also be completing an Arizona State University cybersecurity class to get a better understanding of the cybersecurity posture being followed in Lind.
 
You also used your Sokoloff grant to work with teens who don’t have consistent access to computers or even the internet. What about that issue spoke to you?
I attended lots of different schools when I was little and none of them were big on computers. The first time I typed an essay was the first time I had typed. I cried ‘cause I had never interacted with a computer before. So I had a little insight into how intimidating it can be to work with tech if you’re not used to it. But the other thing is computers are a part of our life now. AI is to a certain extent, too. And not having some understanding of these things only exacerbates inequality.
 
What was involved with the work you did?
Through local libraries and family friends I got the names of kids who didn’t have regular access to technology and ran an online class. I ordered a bunch of computers from Amazon and distributed them and then just walked students through the steps of basic computing to some more advanced coding concepts.
 
Any big takeaways on your end?
I gained a whole new respect for teachers. Having to teach online — oh my gosh. But also I didn’t realize how much of a technology gap there is. One of my students had to walk his computer to his aunt's house just to get wifi. That was eye-opening. But then to watch these kids grow, from not knowing much about computers to becoming these little geniuses, was really cool.
 
It’s striking the level of social concern that’s built into your tech interests. In your Capstone proposal you referenced how computer vulnerabilities can lead to the targeting of journalists and political dissidents. You created that summer class. What accounts for that?
I love political stuff, I love business stuff and I love computer stuff. When you consider that the internet is becoming a place where we host increasingly larger parts of our lives, we must make sure that it’s a safe, equitable, and prosperous place for everyone. Cybersecurity is at the intersection of all of those things.
 
Your sense of living in and being a part of a greater world around you — how has that been impacted by St. Paul’s?
It’s been incredibly influential not only with what I do with computers, but also how I lead my life. Being with people from all over the world and from every background possible makes you think about the world more and makes you realize what we can do when we all work together.
 
Say we’re talking again in 10 years. Where will you be?
I want to be leading my own team to create a positive impact on the world. Yes, I know that is cliché. It’s tough to know what that will look like — maybe I’ll be living in New York City running an AI-powered financials business, or maybe in Silicon Valley forming an instrumental part of the wall securing our internet. Ultimately, I want to still be betting on myself to make a positive change in the world, and will work extremely hard to get there. Let’s plan on chatting again in 10 years — I’d be interested to see if I am far off.

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