China Forges Ahead as a Computer Science Power


By staff reporter LU RUCAI


HE is the sole Chinese ever to win the A.M. Turing Award, regarded as the Nobel Prize of Computing. He has also been elected a fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and as a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.



Andrew Chi-Chih Yao:

Dean of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences of Tsinghua University, world renowned expert on computer science, winner of the A.M. Turing Award in 2000, and founder of a trial computer science class at Tsinghua University.


This is the man who in 2004 quit his tenure at Princeton University and joined Tsinghua University. The next year he established a trial computer science class at this prestigious Chinese university. In 2011 he established the Tsinghua Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences, China’s first, and the Center for Quantum Information. And in 2014 he renounced his U.S. nationality, and became a full member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.


Andrew Chi-Chih Yao, dean of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences, Tsinghua University, personifies the very best of Chinese scientists; those committed to the motherland’s sci & tech research and education.


Distinguished Career


Dr. Yao was born in Shanghai in 1946, and moved to Taiwan with his parents at an early age. After graduating from university there, he went to the U.S. for further study. He received his PhD in physics at Harvard University in 1972, and a PhD in computer science from the University of Illinois in 1975. From 1975 to 2004 Dr. Yao taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton University.


Dr. Yao shows visitors his quantum computer lab.


Dr. Yao’s study spans computer science and quantum information. His complexity-based theory of pseudorandom number generation, cryptography, and communication complexity has had lasting impact on the very foundations of modern cryptography, computer security, computational complexity, and randomized computation. His theory won him the A.M. Turing Award in 2000, generally recognized as the highest distinction in computer science.

Notwithstanding his success in the U.S., Dr. Yao left his teaching job at Princeton in June 2004, and accepted an offer from China’s Tsinghua University, a decision that confounded many people. “To cultivate talents in China, and to make breakthroughs at the sci & tech forefront in this country have an entirely different significance for me,” he explained.


Inauguration of “Yao’s Class”


In 2004, China’s computer science sector was well behind that of developed countries. Dr. Yao believed that enhancing undergraduate education and cultivating world-level professionals for future higher sci & tech research was the first step towards changing this situation.


In 2005 Tsinghua opened a trial software science (later changed to computer science) class through a partnership with Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) whose students were enrolled from freshmen and sophomores of various majors. As mastermind of this course, Dr. Yao personally designed and periodically updated the curriculum of the later dubbed Yao’s Class. His aim was to create a challenging program that would help its students to discover their true interests and strengths. In a letter to all Tsinghua students of March 2006 Dr. Yao wrote: “Our goal is not to produce software developers and programmers, but the world’s best computer professionals.”


From the very beginning, Yao envisioned an international program for this class. Besides its all-English curriculum, it nurtures in students a global vision by engaging them in scientific research and regular international exchanges. These efforts have paid off. John Hopcroft, another Turing Award winner, commended Yao’s Class as constituting the world’s best undergraduate students and best undergraduate education.


Dr. Yao at a class.


By the end of 2016, Yao’s Class students had published 121 theses, and 42 were invited to international conferences to present their papers. One third of the students have also delivered research results, a rare feat even for globally top-ranking universities. “This is now an internationally recognized brand of undergraduate education. And its graduates are sought after by the best research institutes in other countries,” Dr. Yao said. “For instance, Princeton has offered nine full-tuition scholarships this year to our graduates.”


In 2011 Yao founded the Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences in Tsinghua University, which studies computer science and related areas, including quantum, energy, electricity, and economy. He went on to establish a quantum computer lab and a financial sci & tech lab, among other achievements. “Our quantum computer lab is truly a world leader in this promising sector. We have realized a multiplexed quantum memory with 225 individually accessible memory cells, a world record,” Yao said. The remarkable progress the lab has made in such a short time span is nothing short of a miracle in the eyes of physicists in China and internationally.


“More Overseas Chinese Will Return”


Since his return to China, Dr. Yao has encouraged dozens of other overseas Chinese scientists to make the same decision. “China is developing fast economically. What’s more, it gives high priority to scientific research, so showing highly commendable foresight,” Dr. Yao said.


Dr. Yao is aware that most Yao’s Class graduates will go abroad for further study, as the U.S. is still at the global forefront of computer science. But he expects many will come back. “It is unlikely that every one of them will return. But if only half of the most accomplished graduates do, this will still be of tremendous benefit to China’s development.”


Yao observed that if the work and research conditions in their home country were of a similar standard to those abroad, most Chinese scientists would choose to work in China. He therefore proposed that Chinese sci & tech institutes offer institutional guarantees to overseas Chinese talents of the same living standards as they enjoy abroad; and what’s more, that these entities create a dynamic environment for scientific research. “This will convince these scientists that returning to China is their best choice.” Yao believes that, given China’s advantages as regards its talent reserves and scientific research funding, it will not be long before the country welcomes an influx of returning overseas professionals.


Dr. Yao gave up his U.S. citizenship in 2014, and became an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in February 2017. He said of this decision: “I am proud and glad to be 100 percent Chinese once more.”