August 31, 2022

Meta Research PhD Fellowship Spotlight: Pioneering the future of privacy with zero-knowledge proofs

By: Meta Research

Each year, PhD students from around the world apply for the Meta Research PhD Fellowship, a program designed to encourage and support promising doctoral students who are engaged in innovative and relevant research related to computer science and engineering. Fellowship recipients receive tuition funding for up to two years to conduct their research at their respective universities, independently of Meta.

As a continuation of our Fellowship Spotlight series, we’re highlighting Jiaheng Zhang, a 2021 Meta Fellow in privacy and security. Jiaheng is pursuing a PhD in computer security and applied cryptography at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on zero-knowledge proofs and their applications to blockchain and machine learning.

“With so much personal information shared online, privacy is something we think about on a daily basis,” Jiaheng explains. “I want to build a world where anyone can protect their privacy without needing to understand the complexities of standard encryptions for applications like computational delegation and anonymous payments.”

He applied for the Meta Fellowship to focus his research on a subarea of cryptography and privacy called zero-knowledge proofs. This verification method is in its infancy and primarily applied to computation delegation in the cloud and other online systems, including the blockchain infrastructure behind cryptocurrencies. Jiaheng designs efficient zero-knowledge proof protocols for general computation and reshapes them for practical applications. For instance, he is working on a protocol that needs only one player in a blockchain to generate a zero-knowledge proof instead of the collective consensus that’s currently used.

Jiaheng says the challenges in applying the theory of zero-knowledge proofs to practical problems are similar to the ones researchers faced in the early stages of artificial intelligence (AI). “Algorithms for artificial intelligence were first developed in theory, and researchers didn’t know how to apply them efficiently,” he says. “In time, we started designing neural network models, algorithms for AI compilers, then AI-friendly hardware, and so on, and now AI is a household concept with unlimited applications.”

His vision for the future of zero-knowledge proofs drove Jiaheng to reapply for the Meta Research PhD Fellowship program after he didn’t make it to the final round during the second year of his PhD. “Being a finalist in my first application process inspired me to try again,” he says. “I knew Meta was interested in my work because I nearly won the fellowship the first time. In order to improve my chances the second time around, I asked the researcher who won about their experience and incorporated their suggestions into my next application.”

There’s still so much that Jiaheng wants to explore about zero-knowledge proofs, and it’s a project he will continue to work on after graduation. While Jiaheng has had a taste of industry with an internship at Meta Research, he’d like to begin his formal career in academia. “There are incredible researchers working in the field,” he notes. “I’d like to start my career as a professor, and five or 10 years down the line—when cryptocurrency is a basic infrastructure, like AI is today—I’d like to have a startup and do more applied engineering work to help move the industry forward.”

To learn more about Jiaheng and his research, visit his profile. For more information on award details and eligibility, visit the program page.