50 Global Armenians: Gurgen Khachatrian

Academician of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Gurgen Khachatrian stands at the origin of the IT-sphere in Armenia.

Gurgen Khachatrian
Gurgen Khachatrian

Photo: from personal archive

Academician of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Gurgen Khachatrian stands at the origin of the IT-sphere in Armenia. He brought in “big cryptography” to Armenia, in which many specialists became professionals and succeeded in the international arena, particularly one of our previous heroes - Karen Ispiryan.

Mathematician Gurgen Khachatrian, who is in big demand by many research and private companies of various countries, preferred to work in Armenia passing his experience and knowledge to the younger generation.

Getting tired of numerous fruitless conferences held in Armenia, it’s hard to imagine that Armenia had hosted a large conference back in 1971, the positive results of which will be reaped by the generations to come. In our “50 Global Armenians” project we have already written about a large scientific conference in Armenia devoted to the theory of cryptography. It was organized by academician Rom Varshamov with the participation of the most eminent mathematicians of the world.

The conference was held at the Tsakhkadzor Olympic base. I was a graduate student at that time and I was meeting with foreign scientists for the first time in my life. The conference was entitled “International Symposium on Information Theory”. All the “stars” of the sphere attended it.

During the conference I established contacts with foreign colleagues and cooperated with some of them for many years.

From Soviet Armenia to mysterious Japan

My first foreign business trip was in 1980 – to Japan. When I arrived in Tokyo airport and got on Tokyo-Osaka bullet train with the speed of over 300 km/h, I experienced a real shock.

Photo: from personal archive.

Japanese people are very benevolent. It was obvious that they wanted to be useful to the foreign guest, though they didn’t speak good English then.

It’s very difficult to work with the Japanese, as despite their amicability they are very unsociable: it’s hard to learn something from them but they want to know everything from you instead. Many of my questions went unanswered in Japan. 

I spent 4 months in Japan and managed to do a lot during that time. I investigated coding for multiple access channels, when several information flows pass through the same frequency and should not interfere with each other. Later I travelled to Japan three times, and in 1986 a Japan group arrived in Armenia.

Big cryptography comes to Armenia

I’ve been in close contact with prominent American scientist James L. Massey, who attended the mentioned conference, for a long time. However, a real opportunity for cooperation emerged only after the collapse of the Soviet Union…

In 1992, Massey arrived in Armenia to deliver lectures. Before his arrival he told me he would like to come with a woman, a close friend of his family. After his lecture in Yerevan, Massey asked me to accompany him to hotel and introduced me to this woman who was of Armenian descent. She was the wife of the director of a leading American company Cylink experienced in cryptography.

They suggested me opening a small company in Armenia. This is how Hylink was established. There were only 10 of us at first, later the company expanded. It exists even today, though I already have nothing to do with it.

In the first half of 90-s, it appeared that DES (Data Encryption Standard) system used till that time is not capable of ensuring the required security level any more. We started working over the solution of the problem. Consequently, we created a block of ciphers SAFER+ which is widely applied in the world today. SAFER+ encryption algorithm (Secure and Fast Encryption Routine) was designed primarily by James Massey, Melsik Kuregian and me in 2000. Bluetooth uses custom algorithms based on SAFER+. 

Photo: from personal archive.

These were very romantic times full of emotions. There was no electricity and we were using energy generators. When we visited USA for the first time and saw their generators we joked that we could buy a few for Armenia. It seemed then that we were working somewhere in the Arctic, as we even cooked our dinner at the workplace...

Then, people began to leave Armenia. When we delegated a man to Cylink for the first time, he decided to stay there and never returned. Two other workers left for the US afterwards and the things began to take off: 20-25 our staff members left for the US.

Eight years in the United States

I have had many business trips to Cylink head office but never thought to stay there. When my daughter got married and went to live in the United States, she and my wife began to persuade me to move to USA too, moreover that my grandson was born there.

During one of my business trips, I met with Cylink CEO and told him I wanted to stay. He immediately ordered to prepare a work visa for me. So I moved to the US. I have worked in Cylink for only 3 years. The company almost went bankrupt, and they cut most of the engineering staff. Then I went to work for Quantum Digital Solutions as a Chief Scientist, where I was also involved in cryptography and worked on a number of problems having interesting practical value.

Corporate authoritarianism in democratic America

One can say - “I’ve had everything in America”, but I’m well familiar with its corporate life and I have discovered a lot of amazing things there. For example, Americans are proud of their democracy: it’s indeed so in terms of an individual, but it’s different in terms of a company. If the CEO says “it is black” you have to agree with him –“No discussion”.

When I went to meetings I witnessed a terrible demagogy: we were told that the company was in a bad condition and there was no money but the managers received bonuses of $ 400-500 thousand.

Photo: from personal archive.

In Armenia, we argued with the managers even in Soviet times: nothing of the kind is possible in America.

In Armenia like in USA

After having worked at Quantum Digital Solutions for 5 years, the things went bad here too. I was looking for a new job and came upon the American University of Armenia.

I thought that time had come for me to return. I came back and I am happy I did so. I feel good at the American University, as I feel like I’m in Armenia and in the USA at the same time. I think it is one of those rare institutions where corruption is not tolerated: neither money, nor ties.

I introduced a new subject at the AUA- “Cryptography”. I have many postgraduate students and we work on scientific-research projects with the financial assistance of Volkswagen Foundation and Samsung.

Volkswagen Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization set up by German automobile manufacturer, which has been funding research projects in all disciplines since 1962. The foundation provides impetus for the development of research and higher education. Together with my German colleague we appealed to the foundation to finance a research project on biometric data and creation of passwords based on these data. The foundation allocated €100 thousand for the project.

Photo: from personal archive.

Together with Samsung we realize security projects: we develop anti-hacker software. We hope Samsung will open a research center in Armenia after the successful implementation of some projects.

If the reach invested in science in Armenia…

The Armenian IT sector traditionally has a lack of personnel, so the students do not have problems with employment and high wages. The problem is that their work is routine - orders from foreign companies which Armenians do for lower payment than the Americans. Many of my students don’t love their work and often ask me to find a scientific-research project they can work on even with lower salary.

People in Armenia should be able to do a practical scientific work and be well paid for it. In this case they won’t leave the country. The projects we currently realize at the AUA don’t solve these problems, since these are long-term projects.

Unfortunately, there Intellectual Property is not created in Armenia today. It would be ideal if rich people financed the science. It would give fantastic results for Armenia’s economy. But unfortunately we don’t have such examples.

The whole essence of information technologies is to create a new value and not to fulfill others’ orders. Armenia can become a rich country only if the value is created here and remains a property of Armenian citizens.

This is my dream and working with foreign institutions and structures I am trying to introduce this culture in Armenia.

Ruben Harutyunian talked to Gurgen Khachatrian.


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