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March 17, 2011 AT 9:23 am

The re-emergence of DIY vs Big Organizations

Excerpt from Johnny Chung Lee’s “The re-emergence of DIY vs Big Organizations”

In the 90’s and early 2000’s, Moore’s law was absolute king. The primary deciding factor in purchasing an electronic product was simply how fast it was. This meant an intense focus on tighter and tighter integration of components and all the functionality was disappearing into tiny little black chips that could not be accessed nor modified by mere mortals. But now, people barely talk about raw “megahertz” or “megabytes” anymore. General purpose computers have gotten “fast enough”. We now want specialized kinds of computers: one that fits in our pocket, plays games in 3D, one shaped like a tablet, one that goes in our car, one that can go under water, or get strapped your snowboard and not break. We have reached a surplus in computing power that makes it affordable to build (and buy) devices for smaller and smaller needs. Our imagination for what to do with computing has simply not kept up with Moore’s Law. So, we find more uses for more modest amounts of computing power. But, what does this have to do with the DIY community?

A byproduct of having such an immense surplus in computing, is that the tools you can buy within a hobbyist budget have also gotten exponentially better in just the past 3-4 years, while the improvement in professional tools have been more modest. The difference in capability between the electronics workbench of a professional engineer and a hobby engineer is getting really really small. Kinect is an overwhelming example of this. The cost of a high quality depth camera dropped nearly 2 orders of magnitude overnight. As a result, hobbyists are out pacing many professionals in the same domain simply due to sheer parallelism. Perhaps not as dramatically, but this is happening with nearly all genres of electronic and scientific equipment. One day, maybe we’ll see backyard DIY electron beam drilling for nano-machining.

When it is no longer about who has the most resources, it’s about who has the best ideas. Then, it becomes a pure numbers game:

Take 10,000 professional engineers vs. 1 million hobbists with roughly equivalent tools. Which group will make progress faster? Now, consider that you have to pay the 10,000 engineers $100K/year to motivate them work, and the 1 million hobbists are working for the love of it. Does that change your answer? Even if it doesn’t, you have to concede that there does exist a ratio which will make the output of these two groups equal. It’s merely a matter of time.

If you follow me through this argument, which I won’t claim to be bullet proof but it explains the trends we are observing quite nicely, then this has an interesting implication on organizations that are currently funding big research groups. When it’s simply a matter of who has the best ideas, it’s tough to try to employ enough people to get good coverage. You could try to spend a lot of energy on trying to find the “best” people, but that’s about as challenging as predicting the stock market. Some inventors simply go “dry” of good ideas and end up not providing a good lifetime return on investment (I fully expect this to happen to me someday. I just hope it happens later rather than sooner.)

So to me, this suggest 3 options for big exploratory organizations…

Read the rest here, it’s excellent.


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