ME: Does the prospect of the Internet of Things make the
right to control and modify gadgets more important than
ever? The idea of being surrounded by Internet-enabled
objects loyal to a third party seems a bit frightening.
A.H: Absolutely. The Io T and the prospect of updates being pushed to your gadgets—updates that can contain kill
codes, planned obsolescence, lock-outs, and downgrades—
means more than ever you should be vigilant and defend
at the very least the right to opt-out of an update. While
currently there are few instances of bad-faith updates being
pushed by vendors, at some point the picture won’t be so
rosy. If you’ve pushed your entire identity, net worth, and
social network into one vendor’s cloud stack, you’ll be stuck
between a rock and a hard place when they decide they
need more money to meet quarterly revenue targets.
ME: In your recent book, you write about visiting high-tech
manufacturing plants and—of all places—a zipper factory.
Do you think engineers would benefit from spending more
time observing how humble objects are made?
A.H: Totally. I learn so much from the humblest of factories.
When I take students to China to introduce them to manu-
facturing, I make a point, in fact, to show them some of the
humblest shops, because that’s where the real innovation
lies. Using a six-axis Kuka robot and computer vision to
solve problems is almost cheating, because you really can’t
afford to throw a six-figure hammer at every production
problem. When you’re selling products at razor-thin mar-
gins, efficiency and amortization matter, and the humblest
factories know that better than anyone else.
ME: How much overlap is there between open-source hardware and the
Maker Movement? Is it possible to have one without the other?
A.H: The Maker Movement is nominally about empowering everyday
people to rediscover the art of building things. Without the ability to
share blueprints, it would be hard to disseminate information. That
being said, the U.S. is particularly fond of licenses and legal systems.
In other countries and cultures, Maker-style activities thrive despite
there being no proper “open-source hardware” license or community.
In those cultures it’s hard to enforce—and people don’t care—about
proprietary licenses as much.
ME: What lesson have you learned from hardware hacking that you
might not have learned from a more conventional career?
A.H: The same toolbox you use to solve engineering problems can also
be applied to solve certain classes of legal problems.
ME: The terms “open source” and “hacking” are
common in software and computer systems. Do those
terms change when you start to talk about hardware?
A.H: Mapping open-source concepts onto hardware
is difficult. There’s a notion in open source that you
can build an entire toolchain and OS from source.
It’s impossible to do that in hardware—ultimately,
to build hardware, you need tools and machines, and
the makers of those tools and machines are typically
unwilling to share their blueprints. This limits the
ability to independently replicate hardware “from
source.” As a result, the open-source hardware
community has proposed the notion of “layers of
openness,” where one declares their design is open
down to a certain abstraction layer. For example,
a circuit board could be open to the schematic and
layout layer, but the chips on it may be closed-source, and the tools used to draft the circuit board’s
design could also be closed source.
TECH BUZZ || ONE-ON-ONE
AFTER EARNING A PH.D. in engineering from MIT,
Andrew “bunnie” Huang wrote a guide to reverse-engineering Microsoft’s Xbox game console. The
ensuing legal battle turned him into a leading
figure in the open-source hardware movement,
which promotes the right to tinker with and modify
products and which supports designs without
manufacturer-imposed restrictions. Huang’s latest
book, The Hardware Hacker: Adventures in Making
and Breaking Hardware, was published this year.