Human technology

From modeling quantum devices to political systems | MIT News

When most students are 17, they are preparing college applications and planning prom. When Sihao Huang was 17, he met with officials from the US Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration. For two years before arriving at MIT, Huang started and ran a company, designing small, customizable satellite modules. Huang, now a student of physics, electrical engineering and computer science, is as enterprising and curious as ever, and he always spends his time thinking about complex physical models and designing better systems. But today, it is not satellite systems that interest him, but political systems.

Growing up in China and Singapore, Huang taught himself electrical engineering and coding and started building circuit boards in his bedroom. At age 14, when his family moved to the United States, he embarked on a personal mission to launch something into space. Huang co-founded a company, Aphelion Orbitals, which he ran for three years. During that time, he recruited engineers from aerospace companies to design modular launch vehicles and propulsion systems to make sending satellites into space accessible to more people.

Huang realized, however, that the real challenge for him as a business owner was not the engineering; it was the human and commercial side of things. “I think I needed to grow more as a person before I could grow the business any further,” he says of his decision to go to college. “It was so much more than just putting pieces together.”

This early exposure to business and its inherent challenges remained in his mind when Huang arrived at MIT and began studying physics and engineering. It didn’t take long to realize that, for him, the most intriguing systems were not in the natural sciences, but in the social sciences.

“Human systems are extremely complex,” says Huang, describing his interest in political science. “It’s a very difficult problem, much more difficult than understanding the arrangement of atoms in a lattice. But the impact on human life, from building more equitable societies to more responsive governments, is enormous.

Surprisingly, Huang’s growing interest in politics was inspired, in part, by his research experience with the Engineering Quantum Systems group during his first two years at MIT.

“It was an amazing experience,” Huang says of his time in the lab. His job taught him how to research and write articles and helped him fall in love with the process. It also exposed him to a wide variety of different ideas and areas of research.

“I think it’s really a special thing at MIT that there’s such interdisciplinarity, that you have people talking about everything from philosophy to economics in a quantum computing lab, and doing world-class research on both topics,” says Huang.

It was towards the end of his second year that Huang met Alex Siegenfeld, a PhD student in physics doing research at the Media Lab. Siegenfeld published an article in Natural Physics in early 2020 using statistical models to understand the instability of political elections. For Huang, reading this article was groundbreaking, and it provided a direct bridge between his lifelong curiosity in physics and his growing interest in politics. Huang began working with Siegenfeld, attempting to extend his theories of single elections to systems of elections that interact and influence each other.

Huang describes this type of emerging research field as complex systems science, research for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2021. “I was really happy about it,” Huang jokes about the Nobel Prize announcement. . “I can finally talk about complex systems science without people thinking, ‘What is that?'”

Huang’s approach to complex systems is to use knowledge and tools from engineering and physics to understand social systems. He sees the value of this approach as twofold. First, it helps scholars see political institutions not as static objects, but as systems that constantly interact and evolve across space and time. Viewing institutions as “learning organizations,” as Huang describes them, can provide innovative solutions to policy problems. Additionally, insights from physics and engineering can provide new tools and techniques for political science, such as graph theory and machine learning. “These things can help us build more quantitative and bottom-up policy models,” Huang says.

However, to broaden his understanding of political science, Huang looked for opportunities to step out of his quantitative comfort zone. His first year he took 17.407 (Chinese Foreign Policy) with Taylor Fravel, professor of political science and director of MIT’s Security Studies Program. In Fravel’s class, Huang got a taste for more traditional political science, using historical documents and interviews to understand the foreign policy impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a regional development project in large scale.

“I interviewed an ambassador at one point, worked to understand China’s diplomatic strategy, and did a lot of qualitative research,” Huang said of his work with Fravel, which helped him declare a minor in political Sciences. “It was a whole different side of political science for me, and I was grateful to have people welcoming me from the opposite corner of the Institute.”

Huang believes his experience researching at both ends of the spectrum – from his highly physics-focused work with Siegenfeld to Fravel’s historical approach – has been essential to his development as a researcher.

“They definitely need to be integrated together,” Huang says of the two approaches. “You have to be careful applying these very quantitative methods to social systems.” Yet, he adds, a complex systems approach can provide valuable insight and rigor to social science research if the work is grounded in political reality and accounts for subjectivity.

Huang’s commitment to understanding all facets of the terrain has now taken him over 3,000 miles. This year he is studying abroad at the University of Oxford in their Philosophy, Politics and Economics programme. “I wanted to be exposed to a very different way of thinking,” Huang says of his decision to go to Oxford. This global thinking will continue as he pursues graduate studies as a 2023 Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

As he was at MIT, Huang engaged in interdisciplinarity while abroad, studying both condensed matter physics and political movements. To some, this may seem like an odd pairing. Huang explains, however, that condensed matter is just an assortment of different and strongly interacting constituents, much like social systems. So it turns out that physics and politics might not be so different after all.