Meet ML@GT: Erik Jorgensen Develops Machine Learning Tools to Understand Malware

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The Machine Learning Center at Georgia Tech (ML@GT) is home to many talented students from across campus, representing all six of Georgia Tech’s colleges and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI).

These students have diverse backgrounds and a wide variety of interests both inside and outside of the classroom. Today, we’d like you to meet Erik Jorgensen, a third-year machine learning Ph.D. student who was inspired to study machine learning by the progress made in self-driving cars during his undergraduate years.

Name: Erik Jorgensen

Hometown: Woodbury, Minnesota

Major: Third-year Machine Learning Ph.D. student in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Advisor: Alenka Zajić and Matthieu Bloch

Previous degrees earned and from what institutions: B.S. electrical engineering at University of Wisconsin-Madison, M.S. electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech

Tell us about your research interests. Where might people be impacted by them in everyday life?

It can be very difficult to ensure your electronics are entirely secure. Whether you download an app that has hidden malware or a laptop manufacturer switched to a less-than-reputable component supplier to lower costs, it’s usually impossible to notice when your device is leaking sensitive information due to malicious or accidental design flaws. I’m interested in developing new machine learning tools to detect and understand malicious hardware or software without the need for meticulous and expensive testing.

What drew you to wanting to research these areas?

With all sorts of tech improving so many aspects of our lives, we need to place a lot of trust in the devices we carry. Machine learning tools are revolutionizing every area in which they’re applied, so I want to be a part of developing those modern tools to make sure everyone can trust their devices they interact with every day.

Give us a quick summary of a recent project or one you are currently working on.

Right now, we’re looking at ways to locate tiny bits of hidden malware, called hardware trojans, without the need to take ultra-high-resolution x-ray scans of the microchip or take apart the entire device. It’s kind of like walking through a scanner at the airport rather than doing a full pat-down of every passenger, except hardware trojans are a lot smaller than the coins you forgot in your pocket.

What motivated or inspired you to pursue your Ph.D.?

The idea of self-driving cars grew to be very realistic sometime during my undergrad years. I became fascinated with the fast-paced machine learning research that drove so much progress in that field. Aiming for a Ph.D. was the best way for me to start learning to be a researcher while gaining a bunch of fancy skills I’ll need to know in my future career path.

Earning your Ph.D. requires a lot of work. What has been challenging, rewarding or unexpected about this experience?

Over 16+ years of formal education, I got very good at being a student. A very challenging part of this whole Ph.D. experience has been, and continues to be, making the transition to become an independent researcher. I won’t be done after earning a Ph.D., but “learning to learn” has been all sorts of challenging and I’m turning the page onto the rewarding part.

Why did you choose Georgia Tech?

I like pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and I like options. Atlanta is in many ways unrecognizable from the Midwest where I grew up and Georgia Tech is as good as it gets for strong academic and research opportunities, so it was a clear choice.

What’s your favorite Georgia Tech memory so far?

Making a giant Snowlax with my roommate during our first Atlanta winter was awesome! Being reminded every winter afterward that snow isn’t a regular thing here, was not.


What have you been up to during quarantine?

I found out just how many free classes Georgia Tech offers online, so now I’m stumbling through the Intro to Graduate Algorithms course that I’ve never been able to fit into my schedule. I’ve been fortunate to spend some good time with family in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Working from home next to a lake is sometimes a bit better than working from home in a cramped apartment. And I learned to water ski!

Though 2020 seems to have lasted a lifetime, we are still at the beginning of a new decade. What are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?

This seems small, but I’m looking forward to buying my first car. I told myself years ago that the first car I ever buy would be a self-driving one – ideally Level 4 or 5  (not a “Full Self-Driving” Level 2 Tesla model like today). I’m hopeful that this is the decade that it becomes reality, not only because I could sleep through a long commute, but because it would be a huge milestone for machine learning in general.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

Without any real experience at the time, I designed and built my own ‘analog’ LED clock. I’m hoping to start version two later this year!

led_clock_vid Picture1

What are some of your hobbies?

I love ultimate frisbee and a good hike away from the city every once in a while. Lately I’ve been watching all kinds of woodworking and personal finance videos. If I really feeling like procrastinating, I’ll play piano.

Podcast, book, movie, or tv show? Why that medium and what are some of your favorites from your chosen medium?

Movies are great. Johnny English is amazing and I love most of the Disney movies of the 90s that had legendary soundtracks.

If you could time travel to any period of time, where would you go and why?

Maybe 50-100 years in the future. It would fun to see what technology is taken for granted by then that we haven’t even though about.

What’s your favorite place to study or work and why?

I’m not very exciting – I like a good desktop setup so it’s hard to really study or work anywhere but my desk.

Why do you think embodying Georgia Tech’s motto of “progress and service” is important, especially in regards to ML and AI?

Data can be used to support all sorts of arguments. It’s up to us to ensure ethical and equitable use of our research.


Press Contact:

Allie McFadden

Communications Officer

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