Electronic Design
Twisted Forms of Internet Reality and the Engineering Skeptic

Twisted Forms of Internet Reality and the Engineering Skeptic

In order to create, support, and manufacture the countless products that we’re involved in, engineers need to be analytical, quantitative, and have the ability to separate reality from creative fantasy.

Jerry Twomey, IEEE Senior Member

One of the interesting things about the information age is the ability for anybody to get their message out to the world with minimal effort. In the space of an hour, you can build a Web site, get a domain name, and publish absolutely anything you want the entire world to see. In addition, myriad blogging sites enable you to set up a Web page about as quickly as you can type. On top of that, many sites claiming to be news sources present a biased perspective on things with little regard to facts or history.

My perspective is generally one of being a skeptic. If you want me to pay attention, cite your sources so I can examine them, and draw my own conclusions. However, the number of people who give credence to junk information is a little frightening.

Creating so-called “information sources” that tells the viewer a false message in order to get money, influence votes, or “muddy the waters” around an issue has become a very common and unchecked process. In addition, the multitude of sources does not allow comprehensive or peer-reviewed critiques.

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Back in the era of three major television networks, and print media, if something was not correct, it usually would garner enough scrutiny that led to its correction. Now in the 21st century, with thousands of sources available, scrutiny and correction are spotty at best. As for sites that are trying to run some form of scam? These can quickly disappear when they become noticed, taking their scams to new Web site locations, setting up shop in a new virtual location, and repeating the process.

The information age has created a jumbled mix of useful gems and worthless junk, and many people don’t bother to determine the difference. I can’t count the number of times I have seen a post on social media with a disturbing graphic and some bold statement that gets forwarded and re-posted ad infinitum with no factual backing.

It’s not all junk, though. One of the gems is the capability to gather “group wisdom,” which can be a powerful and useful thing. For pretty much any topic, a forum, Web site, or news group exists to deal with the subject. The collective knowledge and opinions generated when asking questions to such a group can help steer you to a solution or provide a quick answer. However, it’s an imprecise “science”—content must be carefully filtered because some self-proclaimed experts may be very vocal with their vast wealth of knowledge, but the reality may be something different.

Crowdsourcing of knowledge has transformed into a number of profitable businesses as well. One example is in the area of patent law. One of the most tedious and time-consuming parts of prior art research in patent law is now done through a Web site. Desired targets are defined and people can provide prior art examples for financial incentives. A number of patents already out there offer a wealth of prior art, and the collective research can quickly bring that material to light. By crowdsourcing the search to many researchers via the Web, a comprehensive prior art search can happen rather rapidly.

I have mixed opinions, though, on one particular area of crowdsourcing: crowdfunding. A number of Web sites allow you to define a fundraising campaign for pretty much anything and raise money to supposedly achieve that goal.

The merits of crowdfunding are many, but I also have some concerns. I see crowdfunding working well in areas that are difficult to find conventional sources of backing, or where the project is so niche that it requires an appeal to a special interest group. For instance, it works well in the creation of limited-volume specialty items. For EEs and people involved in hobby-level electronics, there have been a number of crowdfunded devices that appeal to certain groups. This includes add-on accessories for Arduino and Raspberry Pi devices, driver and controller boards for robotics, and others of that ilk.

Another recent crowdfunding campaign involved raising the money to restart an observational satellite that NASA no longer had the money to keep running; however, the feeling was it could still do some useful work.

A crowdfunded effort got the 36-year-old space probe up and running again. The appeal for funding was well defined—the limitations and risks were laid out in a factual, honest manner, so that people were properly informed and not deceptively pumped for money. Launched in 1978, the satellite is well past its original mission, which caused the dollars from NASA to dry up. I am a big supporter of this kind of effort; if NASA can’t fund it, but enough people are willing to provide the money, hopefully some useful observational data will result.

Other crowdfunding topics with promise includes appeals for research money where the goals, limitations, possible rewards, and possible failures are all laid out clearly as part of the funding appeal. However, crowdfunding of the strange, bizarre, and deceptive also happen. Take, for instance, the crowdfunding campaign that’s raised over $50,000 to make potato salad.

Things like this I see a certain humor in. The person who set up the campaign was not out to deceive or defraud, but rather set up a campaign with a modest goal of $10, and social media of various forms got a hold of it and the result snowballed into something much bigger. Seems silly, but no intentional deception is going on, so people are free to spend their money as they see fit. It does clearly demonstrate the power of crowdsourcing combined with viral social media, though.

I think that having alternative paths to fundraise are good things, but it’s pretty obvious that due diligence on the fundraiser, or the viability of their goals, generally doesn’t happen. I’ve been approached by several groups that crowdfunded a project, knew nothing about the electronics needed in the project, and had already spent most of the money elsewhere. I’ve also heard that in several of these “campaigns,” people took the money and did not use it for the stated goals, or whatever that they were trying to fund would never work in reality.

I try to avoid using the word “never,” but some examples recently came to my attention after being asked about the viability of an idea.

Solar Roadways raised over 2 million dollars on an idea that most engineers will quickly see as impractical for many reasons. The whole idea centers around putting down solar panels embedded in the road. These devices are going to (magically) power the grid, melt ice off of the roads, provide lighted street markers, drain water from the streets, and provide a path for underground cables.

This is one of those ideas where marketing wins out over realistic engineering. They put together a very persuasive set of material to sell the idea while ignoring all of the practical and quantitative issues. Most engineers foresee problems with energy storage; reliability of interconnects; more cost-effective options to deploy solar; and many other conflicts that make this a non-starter for their proposed widespread deployment. Keep in mind, I never say “never” to teleportation, moving faster than light, or time travel. This, however, is never going to happen as described. Cover the roof of every building in the country with solar energy before you start putting it under our tires. This effort shows the power of good marketing, but no practical engineering.

How about a device that claims to charge your cell phone 92% faster? This is a fundraiser for devices that sit in line with a USB port and a cell phone. It’s not a charger, but merely an in-line device that sits between the phone and the charger. They have raised over $400,000 dollars for something that I know will not do what is claimed.

This is one of those dubious projects with wild claims that triggers a number of red flags. The charging rate for the battery in a phone is set by the charge controller in the phone, not by something outside the phone. The USB device can communicate its power capabilities to the phone, and the phone’s internal charger is able to adjust accordingly.

However, the USB power-delivery protocol is between the charger and the device being charged; something in the middle will not magically create more power. They claim that the device “modifies the D+ and D- to signal your mobile device to charge at the fastest possible setting no matter what USB port you're connected to.” That’s what the USB-compliant power source is supposed to already be doing. When you read the fine print on this crowdfunding campaign, the claims are carefully worded with enough disclaimers to render the title claim of being 92% faster as worthless. However, people read the 40-point title fonts a lot more than the fine print.

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This file type includes high resolution graphics and schematics when applicable.

So what does all of this have to do with electronics and engineers in general? In order to create, support, and manufacture the countless products that we’re involved in, engineers need to be analytical, quantitative, and have the ability to separate reality from creative fantasy. Both engineers and scientists develop critical thinking skills to deal with unknowns and discern the important items from a flood of irrelevant and unimportant issues. As a community, we can be an advocate for the real, and wave the red flags over the questionable.

Sometimes it just takes a polite question: What are your sources on that? Could you explain how it’s going to work? Do you have any supporting data? Frequently, engineers are unaware that many around them don’t have the analytical skills for which they have trained, or that their scientific literacy has developed well beyond the average person. Consequently, both engineers and scientists can be useful advocates in separating the wheat from the chaff of the information age. Without being confrontational, you can be a skeptic and ask the right questions. Don’t be afraid to do so in a friendly and positive manner.

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