Artificial IntelligenceEdTechHigher EducationInformation Technology

Preparing College Students for the Quantum Age of Discovery

By James Curtis, Ph.D., Chair, Math and Computer Science Department, Webster University

I was there as the Information Age transitioned from birth to adolescence; it was chaotic, exciting, and wonderful. The 70s decade is when the Information Age established itself as a result of the expansion of computer availability, processing capability, advanced education, and the ability to store and transfer data into usable information efficiently.  I was part of something spectacular as we moved from main-frame computers housed in frigid raised floor server rooms to desktops, then the personal computer (who can forget the 1984 Super Bowl Apple Macintosh commercial!), and ultimately the mobile era of tablets, smartphones and apps.

My goal is to use IT advancements to motivate them to want to learn as much as possible and prepare for what is likely coming as they enter the IT workforce.

As I teach computer science, management information systems, data analytics, and cybersecurity students, I often take them on a journey through the Information Age and how we got here from there. They are curious, maybe somewhat skeptical, and often amazed at my first-hand stories about how we transitioned from the Space Age of the 50-60s to the Information Age. I bring in an old Motorola ‘brick’ cell phone, or automobile ‘bag’ phone, and sometimes even my Tandy TRS-80 PC so students can literally touch and feel the history. They love it, and it helps them to appreciate how fast technology progresses throughout our lifetimes.

Soon, it will be their turn. They will graduate college and become part of the next Information Technology (IT) age of discovery. We are on the cusp of burying the Information Age as we barrel head long into the Quantum Age.  I can’t wait for my students to experience what is to come. I believe one of my responsibilities is to prepare them for how to manage the oncoming change. However, as a technologist, all I can do is impart my best guidance, analysis, and informed predictions based upon my experiences from the Information Age; and then qualify it by telling them that I will most likely be proven wrong about most of my predictions when they look back in 25 or so years. I also caution that one thing is for sure: all great IT advancements seem to be coming, and coming, and then ‘bang’ they hit us like a tidal wave. The turmoil we are experiencing in academia with the new ChatGPT artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot using generative AI is a timely example.  Google, Microsoft, and other major IT companies are scrambling to respond with their own AI capabilities.  The results will be tumultuous and chaotic, and a significant leap forward in technological advancement.

My goal is to use IT advancements to motivate them to want to learn as much as possible and prepare for what is likely coming as they enter the IT workforce. They will encounter several technologies that are at the nascent stages, such as quantum computing, at various stages of their capabilities, as in the advancement of artificial intelligence and machine learning, or the role of supporting technologies like Fifth Generation (5G) transmission capabilities or the expanding ability to manage and utilize big data.  Each will be a key factor in the formation of the ‘perfect IT storm’ that will be the Quantum Age.

Today’s students are the generation that has had a smartphone or tablet in their hand since they were 10 years old.  They love technology — it is almost second-nature to them and life in general.  But, I also feel concerned about them because they only know what they have today, not what is coming.  And they ask a lot of questions such as “What will computer programming be like in 10-20 years?” or “Will programmers as a profession be replaced by computers?” In our Social Engineering classes, we discuss possibilities around the future of cybersecurity and the potential threats from the ‘bad guys’ as they devise new ways to ‘steal our stuff.’ Questions like “How will biometrics evolve and serve as a tool for protecting our data?” Or, “Will new AI generated encryption be unbreakable, and if so, what are the ramifications for law enforcement and privacy?”  These types of questions serve as primers for us to engage in thoughtful exploratory discussions resulting in the students embracing future possibilities. 

My goal is to prepare them to thrive in the midst of the true constant in our discipline — rapid continuous change.  I want them to open their minds and imaginations to the potential of what they will help shape, and to think about the opportunities and threats the Quantum Age will bring to the world.  Whether it is modeling climate change, health care solutions, or supply-chain management, my students will play a role in leveraging the technologies of the Quantum Age. 

For the students who express anxiety based upon concerns about AI from watching movies like War Games (WOPR) or Terminator (Skynet), we discuss the importance of ethical coding, the social engineering code of ethics, and similar policy and ethical constructs that are woven throughout our curriculum. 

My final message to students is that I want them to graduate, and boldly embark on their careers with an appreciation for their potential to impact people’s lives for the better, and to embrace the adventures of the forthcoming Quantum Age of Discovery.  I envy them.

About Author:
Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology
Webster University

Career Summary: Dr. James Curtis is the Chair of the Math and Computer Science Department and Cybersecurity/IT Program Director at Webster University, St. Louis, MO. His areas of expertise include social engineering, information warfare, critical infrastructure, and transportation systems. He is a retired United States Air Force officer who was awarded more than two dozen combat and service decorations to include the Defense Superior Service Medal and a Joint Service Commendation Medal for a Special Act of Courage. He was an aviator and combat crew member flying EC-135 Airborne Command and Control aircraft (Looking Glass) in the Strategic Air Command where he logged over 2000 mission hours. From 1989-1993, Colonel Curtis was a White House Presidential Communications Officer serving Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. After military retirement, he was a Vice President and Midwest Regional Director of SRA International, a leading IT federal systems integrating company.

Dr. Curtis holds a Bachelor’s degree in Communications Technology from Texas State University. He also received a Master’s degree in Computer Systems and Information Management from Webster University, a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Public Policy Analysis from Saint Louis University. He is the author of “Strike Outs and Home Run”, a doctoral analysis of public-private partnerships between communities and professional minor league baseball.

Dr. Curtis is one of the co-authors of the book “Cyber Forensics: Examining Emerging and Hybrid Technologies” which investigates new and emerging technologies and conducting cybersecurity forensic investigations on their origins and attack methods. He is also the originator of the “Triad of Disruption” framework of Information Warfare used by nation-states and terrorist organizations against America and other democracies. The theory was first published in National Defense magazine and has since been used as a source for evaluation using the three elements of social media, digital social engineering, and propaganda, fake news, and disinformation to influence and disrupt societies. He frequently serves as a cybersecurity subject matter expert to NBC, FOX, KMOX, NPR, Voice of America, and other national and regional media services.