Are We Jeopardizing Our Most Important Long-Term Asset: Trust?

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Debate Participants

Anthony Acampora

Anthony Acampora is a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Emeritus, at the University of California, San Diego, and is involved in teaching and numerous research projects at the leading edge of modern telecommunications.

From 1995 through 1999, he was Director of UCSD’s Center for Wireless Communications, responsible for an industrially funded research effort which included circuits, signal processing, smart antennas, basic communication theory, wireless telecommunications networks, infrastructure for wireless communications, and software for mobility.

From 2000-2007, he was Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCSD, involved in teaching and various research projects, including the Internet, ATM, broadband wireless access, network management and dense wavelength division multiplexing.

Prior to joining the faculty at UCSD in 1995, he was Professor of Electrical Engineering at Columbia University and Director of the Center for Telecommunications Research, a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center.

He joined the faculty at Columbia in 1988 following a 20-year career at AT&T Bell Laboratories, most of which was spent in basic research where his interests included radio and satellite communications, local and metropolitan area networks, packet switching, wireless access systems, and lightwave networks. His most recent position at Bell Labs was Director of the Transmission Technology Laboratory where he was responsible for a wide range of projects, including broadband networks, image communications, and digital signal processing.

At Columbia, he was involved in research and education programs concerning broadband networks, wireless access networks, network management, optical networks and multimedia applications.

He received his PhD. in Electrical Engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and is Fellow of the IEEE and a former member of the IEEE Communication Society Board of Governors.

Professor Acampora has published over 160 papers, holds 33 patents, and has authored a textbook entitled “An Introduction to Broadband Networks: MANs, ATM, B-ISDN, Self Routing Switches, Optical Networks, and Network Control for Voice, Data, Image and HDTV Telecommunications.” He has been a member of numerous telecommunications advisory committees and frequently serves as a consultant to government and industry.

Dr. Personick was born in Brooklyn NYC, and attended: the Bronx High School of Science, the City College of New York (BEE), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sc.D.).

Upon completing his doctorate at MIT, he spent 15 years as an individual researcher and as a research manager at: Bell Laboratories, TRW, and Bell Communications Research (Bellcore), working in the field of optical communications technology and applications. In recognition of this work he was elected: a Fellow of the IEEE (1983), a Fellow of the Optical Society of America (1988), and a Member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (1992). He received the prestigious IEEE/OSA John Tyndall Award in 2000.

Since 1985 he has focused his research and management activities on emerging and next-generation telecommunications systems, technologies, and applications. He was a Vice President, in charge of a wide variety of research and systems engineering efforts, at Bellcore (now Telcordia Technologies) from September 1985- July 1998. During this time, he served as a member, and as the Chairman, of the U.S. Federal Networking Council Advisory Committee during the critical transition of the NSFnet to the current set of commercial and federally sponsored networks (the U.S. portion of the worldwide Internet).

In September 1998 he joined Drexel University as the first E. Warren Colehower Endowed Chair Professor, and as the first Director of Drexel’s Center for Telecommunications and Information Networking.

From September of 2003 to February 18, 2008, he was an independent consultant to the telecommunications industry; and served as a member of the Board of Directors of Optical Communication Products Inc. (NASDAQ: OCPI), and as a member of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Technological Advisory Council.

Dr. Personick joined the New Jersey Institute of Technology on February 18, 2008 as the first Ying Wu Endowed Chair Processor, within NJIT’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.


Stephen B. Weinstein, an IEEE Life Fellow, received his SB, MS, and PhD degrees in Electrical Engineering from M.I.T., the University of Michigan, and the University of California at Berkeley.   After a career with Bell Laboratories, American Express, Bellcore (Telcordia), and NEC Research Labs America, he is now a part-time consultant (Communication Theory & Technology Consulting LLC) to industry and law firms.

Dr. Weinstein invented the data-driven echo cancellation technique used in voiceband modems and pioneered the application of the Fast Fourier Transform to OFDM/DMT modulation.  He led early development of networked multimedia applications including end-to-end systems for on-demand video and for informal multimedia group collaboration.  He wrote the book Getting the Picture:  A Guide to CATV and the New Electronic Media (IEEE Press, 1986), is co-author of the textbook Data Communication Principles (Plenum, 1992), and is the author of The Multimedia Internet (Springer, 2005), an overview of the technologies supporting audio/video media on the Internet.

Presently chair of the IEEE Communications Society Awards Committee and of the IEEE Recognitions Council,  he served as President (1996-97) of the IEEE Communications Society and Division III Director (2002-2003) on the IEEE Board.  He co-founded the IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking and has served in many capacities in publications and conference activities.   He received the IEEE Centennial Medal in 1984 and the IEEE Second Millennium Medal in 2000.  He is the recipient of the 2006 Eduard Rhein Foundation Basic Research Award for his early OFDM work.



Opening the debate

I'm Steve Weinstein, the moderator for this debate, hoping to move it in interesting and provocative directions.  I'd like to credit Len Cimini, ComSoc's volunteer Director of Online Content, for encouraging the Communities web site and this event, and ComSoc staff members David Alvarez, Head of the Information Systems Department, and Programmer/Analyst Matt Sielski, for developing and programming this web site.

The debate will be conducted in a moderated discussion thread, familiar in many online forums and discussion groups.  There will actually be two parallel discussion threads, one for the debaters and the other for everyone else who wants to participate.  Your inputs will influence subsequent postings by the debaters.  Feel free to contribute, following the instructions posted on this web site.  The forum for audience comments opens on Saturday, March 28.

Stu Personick, who will begin the debate, is the Ying Wu Endowed Chair Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Associate Dean for Research, at the Newark College of Engineering of the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).  He has had a distinguished career in industry, in the field of emerging telecommunications technologies, at Bell Labs, TRW, and Bellcore (now Telcordia Technologies).

Tony Acampora is Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Emeritus, recalled to Research, at the University of California at San Diego.  He was founding Director of UCSD's Center for Wireless Communications and previously directed the Center for Telecommunications Research at Columbia University.   He has had a distinguished career in research and leading large projects in broadband and wireless communications and networking.

Do we have a problem with "breakthrough" hype? For the first shot of this debate, I turn the floor over to Professor Personick.


A Matter of Trust


A Matter of Trust
Stewart D. Personick, IEEE Fellow, March 25, 2009
These are exciting times in the field of telecommunications and networking, (putting aside the financial issues, which affect all of us). The improvements in the performance and the reductions in the cost of communication services, systems, and technologies over the last several years have been breathtaking… even for people like me, who closely follow current research activities.
Earlier today, I was teaching a session of a first year graduate course, offered at NJIT, called “Communications I”. The topic was intersymbol interference and ways to mitigate its effects. After introducing some of the traditionally basic concepts, such as zero-forcing equalization, I hastened to remind my students that the methodologies used in the industry just a few years ago have, for the most part, been replaced by OFDM as a result of the emergence of powerful and low cost digital signal processing technologies.

OFDM has made it possible to communicate through channels that seemed hopelessly constrained by multipath effects just a few years ago. I would certainly characterize the emergence of OFDM as an example of a “breakthrough” in our industry. That assessment is based, retroactively, on its proven impact, as well as proactively in terms of its further potential.

I could name several other “breakthroughs” in telecommunications and networking (in some cases, even old ideas whose time has come because of advances in enabling technologies) whose impact has been established via real, widespread applications. For example: “software-defined radio”, “MIMO”, and the combination of optical amplifiers with “DWDM”.
But, lately, there has been a proliferation of public announcements of “breakthroughs” by members of the research community (not limited to researchers working in the field of telecommunications)… which are much more in the nature of interesting experimental results… whose usefulness in real applications is speculative, at best. In some cases, the logical thread between what was demonstrated or observed, and the alleged implications, is vanishingly thin.
It is well known that I have been outspoken regarding the dangers of this to all of the members of the research community.
What’s the problem?
Most people, including the people who fund our research, and who influence the people who fund our research, take, on faith, that what we do is producing a prospective return on the associated investment. They don't have the basic knowledge, or the in-depth expertise to understand the technical issues and opportunities we are trying to address in our research... and that has been true for as long as any of us has been performing research and engineering.
Look, for example, at the long running, and popular "Star Trek" series. Everyone could relate to what Captain Kirk and his successors were doing. Most people could even relate to what Dr. McCoy was doing. But, what about Mr. Spock? Why did we (and the crew of the Enterprise) put so much blind trust in him?

Remember the scene, in a full length “Star Trek” movie, in which Spock says that he cannot promise that his slingshot-around-the-sun calculations will bring Enterprise successfully back from the 20th century (with whales on board), and Captain Kirk tells him: “then make your best guess”. Spock, puzzled by Captain Kirk's order, asks Dr. McCoy what the Captain meant when he said "then make your best guess". McCoy responds that: “what the Captain means is that he trusts your best guess more than anyone else’s in-depth calculation”.
As a community, we have a very valuable “brand”. People who have no way of second guessing the correctness, completeness, novelty, or importance of what we disclose... and what we imply (in terms of the prospective impact of our disclosures) have depended upon our Spock-like trustworthiness. The fact that so many of us (including me) use parenthetical clarifications in our talks and our written publications goes hand-in-hand with our reluctance (risk-aversion) to unintentionally mislead the people who hear our talks and read our written publications.
What will happen if we continue to publish more-and-more alleged "breakthroughs", and, in our rush to publish… in order to attract attention or funding… we continue to raise unrealistic expectations regarding the implications of those alleged “breakthroughs” among the members of the audiences to whom we "explain" our research activities and results.
The answer is simple... we will lose their trust... and then we will have nothing.

Self-Promotion: Good and Bad

Self-Promotion: Good and Bad


Anthony Acampora
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Emeritus
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, CA 92093


            When I was first starting out at Bell Labs many years ago, my Supervisor called me in and revealed to me his “secret” principles for career success.  He told me (1) know your boss’s expectations; (2) meet your boss’s expectations; and (3) make sure that you boss knows that his expectations have been met.  And, over the next three decades or so, I developed a deep appreciation for just what he meant.  All too often, a potentially terrific discovery is made, or a potentially killer-technology new approach is proposed, or some other form of really great work is done, with no long-term benefit.  Papers are published, scientists and engineers move on to the next idea, and the potentially great breakthrough gets no further than some library archive (unless, of course, it is rediscovered years later by someone else) 

            In these cases, what the breakthrough scientist or engineer failed to do was notify the world that his/her discovery warranted further attention and critical review.  And, this is most unfortunate.  I have always felt that the proponents of potentially trend-setting new ideas have the obligation to fully vent their proposal, serving as advocates for what they believe may be truly profound.  Then, after a full airing, the bad ideas will be identified and shot down before anyone (even the original proponent) wastes any additional time.  The great ideas will be recognized, collaborations will form, others will propose improvements and refinements, and the state of the art will have been significantly advanced.  Thus, I am a strong proponent of the “blow your own horn” modus operandi, where the intent is to stimulate a meaningful, and potentially very important, technical discussion.

            Unfortunately, there are too many examples of the above “principles for success” being carried way too far.  Too often, technology advocates seem to be preaching the outrageous, or shouting out sound bites intended only to attract attention and/or funding.  Claims are made that defy the laws of nature or basic fundamental principles.  Supposedly knowledgeable, highly regarded people make really gross exaggerations concerning either their own work or the work of others from within their organizations or research centers.  Typically, the audience consists of technical neophytes who are wowed by the exaggerations but are incapable of distinguishing technical myth from reality.  Most technical people, upon hearing these statements, would smirk at the absurdity of the speaker’s claims.

            These over-the-top pronouncements may be likened to the use of steroids among athletes, or cheating on college entrance exams.  I recently read a book (sorry, I remember neither the title nor author) which pointed out the tremendous incentives for cheating within our society:  the rewards for being “best-in-class” may be an order-of-magnitude greater than those for second-best.  Unfortunately, it pays big to be Number One, and some scientists and engineers are not at all above lying, cheating, or exaggerating to be perceived as smarter, or more deserving, or more “in-tune” than others.  Of course, this is a tremendous disservice to all (except perhaps for the exaggerator who may be inappropriately rewarded by a star-struck society), and is diametrically opposite the type of healthy discussion suggested by the above-cited “principles for success.”

            Of late, I have become somewhat jaded with regarded to some of the claims that I read or hear of, especially as they apply to the field of telecommunications.  Perhaps because telecommunications is such a mature field that there may be some temptation to exaggerate the importance of some new proposal or “discovery”, or to proclaim novelty over the re-hashing of ideas originally proposed and published ten or more years ago.  As will happen as a discipline matures, the number of truly great suggestions may be dwindle with time.  Thus, exaggeration and hype replace the working hard needed to produce bold new ideas in an increasingly competitive environment.

            I am delighted to have been asked to participate in this on-line discussion.  Perhaps, collectively, we might create some insight, or even a roadmap, to insure that the exaggerations are quickly debunked, good ideas are recognized and supported early on, and opportunities for technological growth are identified and pursued.


A Matter of Trust + Integrity


You raise an interesting and important aspect of this... one that I have been thinking about since I read your opening post:

Whose expectations to we have to satisfy? Whose interests do we serve?

I was surely lucky to begin my career at Bell Laboratories (starting in June 1967).

For several reasons, which I am grateful for now, but took for granted back then... the expectation of my first boss (John Woodruff), and his boss (Dick Boyd), and all the way up the line to President of Bell Laboratories and the top executives of AT&T was that Members of the Technical Staff would add to the established reputation of Bell Laboratories, and its people... and never exploit it for their own self-interest. 

For example, every publication... whether in the Bell System Technical Jouranl or an IEEE Transactions, etc., underwent a rigorous internal peer review... for both technical correctness and for appropriate positioning of the subject matter in the larger context of the field and the industry. I cannot even imagine a paper being submitted for internal review that positioned a result as a "breakthrough" (It would never get to the internal review process, because it wouldn't be signed off for review by the submitter's supervisor). If a draft publication attempted to exaggerate the difference between what it disclosed and the existing practice, that would be have to be fixed before the internal reviewers would sign off.

I never had any problems getting my publications released...  but I quickly learned to focus on the objective aspects of my results, and how those results might be used by other engineers.

Admittedly, times have changed... and we live in the present.

Admittedly, the people we have to satisfy have a more diverse set of agendas. The Director of Public Relations of your company needs to release "breakthrough results" on-demand. I have had more than one such person tell me that it doesn't matter if the content of a press release is totally wrong (full of technical errors) and/or makes grossly exaggerated claims... "All people will remember is that the company (or other organization) was mentioned for having done something new, and important enough to warrant a press release".

But: as engineers, don't we also have obligations to serve the profession? Don't we have obligations to protect the hard-earned "brand" of the profession? Are we going to join the "race-to-the-bottom".


Self Promotion with Integrity

Hi Stu.

            While I realize that this is supposed to be a debate, I am not at all surprised that you and I are seeing eye-to-eye on this issue.  When I speak of “self promotion”, I am of course acknowledging that we should all strive for a win-win situation.  If we think we have done good work, we should socialize/advocate/promote that good work.  Others will soon decide if the work is really that good and, if so, then we all benefit and others follow up with still further advancements.  It is the “let’s fool everyone with an upbeat quarterly earnings report” type of mentality that we are both reacting to. 

            By the way, I, too, miss the collegiality and culture of excellence that we both enjoyed years ago at Bell Labs.  Ideas went up on the blackboard (or whiteboard) for others to see.  Reactions were often immediate:  “that is not such a good idea for these reasons,” or “someone has already done it.”   Alternatively, the better ideas were recognized and reinforced.  By contrast, today I find that technical pronouncements are often made as a “done deal,” as if the without follow-up technical “due diligence” had already been done, and anyone who disagrees is simply dismissed as someone who “doesn’t get it.” 

            By promoting good work, we are positively serving ourselves, our companies, and our profession.  By prematurely hyping some false “breakthrough”, we are ultimately harming all.  


How to fix the problem


Yes, indeed, we agree that technology hype is a bad trend.... at least in terms of its impact on the credibility of technologists in the eyes of the general public.

Let's discuss what, if anything, can be done about it.

A few years ago, I was asked to chair a National Research Council ad-hoc Committee on the subject of Critical Communications Infrastructure Protection and the Law. Our Committee produced a report with that title that is available from the National Academics Press. Sadly, the 911 tragedy occurred shortly after our Committee convened for the first time. This had an immediate (perhaps short-lived) effect on the views expressed to the Committee, by many of our invited speakers, regarding how people in their their organizations (private or public sector) work with other organizations (private and public sector) to address various types of rainy day scenarios. Some were hesitant to talk too frankly about the traditional impediments to cooperation: disclosure of proprietary information, exposure to law suits, trade-offs between the ability to prosecute criminals and the ability to intervene when criminal acts appear to be in progress.

As a consequence of working on that project, I was left with no doubt that only fear and greed will motivate most people. [There are, of course, many exceptions to this, but by analogy to Gresham's law: People driven by greed and fear (of losing their jobs or getting caught) push people of integrity out of organizations... particularly government organizations]

So... given this cynical view of real life (outside of the old Bell Laboratories) what will it take to reverse the trend toward more and more technology hype?

Well, I know that the prospect for legal liability is a great motivator. When I worked at Bellcore (now Telcordia) my colleagues and I published many research papers... and we had no problems getting those papers expeditiously released for publication. But, we were constantly reminded (by our lawyers) that we had an obligation to be very careful about what we claimed in our publications (i.e., the claimed implications of our results). At issue, at Bellcore, were special legal concerns having to do with the "Modification of Final Judgment" associated with the Divestiture of the former Bell System.

Should there be at least some legal liability associated with the making of grossly exaggerated claims about technical "breakthroughs" when such claims are clearly intended to influence investors and sponsors?


Fixing the Problem

Hi Stu -

        Legal recourse as you suggest might be one approach for solving this problem.  Social stigma might be another.  Maybe, in a way that doesn't subject ourselves to a libel lawsuit, we might create some type of forum for exposing gross exaggeration.   Comsoc might even consider taking a lead on this.  I am thinking of something beyond a mere "comments to the editor" type of feature.  In fact, upon reflection, an on-line public forum, similar to a regular column in the Communications Magazine, might be created to serve three related purposes.  First, hype might be exposed in a public way.  Second, the old "coffee room" type of discussions we had at Bell Labs to shoot down bad ideas and reinforce good ones might be virtually recreated.  And third, interesting new topics (which, unfortunately, seem to be dwindling in number, perhaps because of trendy focus on hype) might be identified.  


Fear v. Greed


For-profit organizations (private sector firms) are the most frequent producers of "breakthrough" press releases (although they are not the only ones).

If a for-profit corporation issues a statement that has anything to do with financial matters... even with the standard "safe harbor" footnotes about "forward looking statements"...  that is known (to the management of the corporation)  to misrepresent its actual current situation, then the officers of that company (and its Board, if they knowingly were complicit) are subject to serious civil and criminal sanctions.

However, if a corporation issues a statement about a technical "breakthrough" that is clearly intended to influence shareholders and other stakeholders... but which is known to the employees and the management to intentionally overstate the significance of that "breakthrough"  and the implications of that "breakthrough" on the future of the corporation's products... there is no liability that I am aware of.

If that changed... I think that the internal review practices of the old Bell Laboratories et. al. would quickly be reestablished.

As you imply, it is extremely dangerous for an individual to publicly criticize another individual's technical publications or statements with respect to hype. There is no upside, only downside.


Fixing the Problem - Part 2

 Hi Stu - I'd like to return to my earlier post for a moment.  Harvey Freeman has made a good point.  Who decides what is hype?  I am putting out there as a topic for discussion the possibility that Comsoc might create an on-line forum where ideas are posted, critiqued, and discussed, and where press releases made by companies, universities, and individuals could also be critiqued and discussed.  All of this would be in the spirit of separating good ideas from the bad ones, without any prejudice as to whether the original idea or press release is viewed as being "in good faith" or "hype."  I am even wondering whether such a new Comsoc feature might further help to identify bold new topics.  As you might surmise from some of my earlier posts, I think that we have seen too few of these over the past few years.   


Discussion threads for new ideas


I apologize for not commenting on this in more depth in my prior post.

Actually, I think it would be a great idea to have a forum (maybe using this community site) where ongoing discussions could take place regarding new ideas that are emerging, or old ideas whose time has come, or old ideas whose time hasn't come.

As I think about this more, I believe that if we could somehow separate discussion of the strengths and weaknesses we perceive in a new idea from any speculation on what might be motivating individuals to promote that idea (or the opposite)... this would be (as you point out) a very good way to recreate and expand upon the type of discussions that take place in large research organizations.

When I was at Bellcore, I created a process... that was very much valued by our senior research sponsors (because they said so)... that I called "commentaries". The way these worked was as follows. If a press release announcing a new technology appeared, I would ask one or more Bellcore subject matter experts to produce, within 48 hours of the press release, and objective analysis that addressed the following questions: what is it (if not self evident from the press release); is it something new or something "old" that is just now being highlighted in a press release; if it is something "old", when and where was it first disclosed; what are the alternative/existing technologies for addressing the same problem or opportunity; what are the objective strengths and weaknesses of what was disclosed in the press release v. existing and emerging alternative solutions.

Since we (Bellcore) had to be very careful to include only objective materials in these "commentaries", and they were carefully scrutinized by our lawyers before being sent out to our external research sponsors... I know that it is possible to "critique" and discuss newly disclosed ideas in an objective way.

We did, however, have a very carefully controlled release process for these commentaries. I'm not sure how we can manage that in an open forum... but there may be a way to do it..