Can the IEEE be an honest broker in technology issues in a borderless world?

The IEEE received a stern rebuke from its members attending the Design Automation Conference (DAC) this week in Las Vegas. The group’s internal critics blasted IEEE for jumping the gun on Huawei sanctions, barring the Chinese firm’s engineers and affiliates from serving as editors and peer-reviewers of IEEE research papers.

Although IEEE earlier this week reversed its decision by lifting the short-lived ban, the damage was done.

China’s academic societies first wrote an open letter to the IEEE calling the action “Reviewgate.” Criticism didn’t just come from China. IEEE’s global members barked at IEEE’s rash decision.

IEEE members, regardless of corporate or academic affiliations, are by nature genuinely global. Those at DAC, when interviewed, complained that IEEE, headquartered in Piscataway, NJ, is “becoming too U.S.-centric.”

One member wondered aloud: “Doesn’t IEEE exist so that the organization can protect us engineers?” The clear implication was that such protection now has borders.

After blurting that “The IEEE president should have been impeached,” an IBM researcher at DAC said, “Well, I meant, we should elect a new president at IEEE.”

Personally, I find the IEEE’s initial action most problematic. The organization not only took the U.S. Commerce Department’s word on its “entity list" at face value, but outdid the government’s protectionism by deciding that restriction of US exports should be also applied to activities at an independent engineering society.

But here’s the question: Shouldn’t engineers apply best practices of “test and verification” before jumping to a conclusion?

It was consultation with the U.S. Department of Commerce, after all, that led IEEE to revoke the initial ban, according to IEEE. If so, why didn’t IEEE take a deep breath and ask the government for more details in the first place?

IEEE declined to speak to EE Times and referred us to a statement issued earlier this week, explaining why it did what it did. “Our initial, more restrictive approach was motivated solely by our desire to protect our volunteers and our members from legal risk.”

While IEEE can spin this political goof as a well-meaning gesture, I don’t buy it. Many of the actors escalating a trumped-up trade war into broader social and political problems are people, companies and organizations driven by the manufactured fear, which was fomented by the government. If anything, the “Reviewgate” should teach sober professionals to look before we leap, to listen before we spout off.  

Missing panelist
This whole fooforaw was unnecessary. The topic of the US-China trade war was never in the DAC program, nor was it ever discussed officially. DAC officials toed the line by striking a wishful tone: “It will work out in the end.”

Nevertheless, the impact of the economic war was palpable at the show. For example, when I moderated a panel of recipients of this year’s “Under 40 Innovators Award” at DAC, Yunji Chen, Beijing-based full professor at Institute of Computing Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, was a no-show.

The official explanation was that he didn’t receive a visa in time. But given his background (he leads the Intelligent Processor Research Center of ICT to develop the Cambricon deep learning processors), he might have chosen to stay, fearful of being halted and interrogated – or worse – at the border.

Earlier this week, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on its official social media feed, wrote: “Recently, US law enforcement agencies have repeatedly harassed Chinese nationals travelling to the US through border interrogations, drop-in visits and various other means.”

EE Times tried to reach out to Chen via email but received no answer.

After the panel was over, I asked my panelists offstage about the IEEE’s Reviewgate mess. Everyone was outraged. Robert Wille, professor, Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria, had a suggestion: “You know, ‘Doctors Without Borders’? What we need is ‘Engineers Without Borders.’”

His wish was granted preemptively. There already is such an organization. Here’s the link: http://ewb-international.com/

But what Wille and many others in the engineering community are hoping for is “freedom in engineering and technology development.” Can IEEE be an honest broker in the technology issues in a borderless world?

-- Additional reporting by George Leopold, EE Times.