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Scene I'd like to see on TV.
blaisepascal
It's a common scene in a sci-fi/thriller show like The Dollhouse or The X-Files for the hero to bring a bit of electronics he has found in his house or car or wherever to an "expert", usually holed up in a poorly lit back-alley storefront, and demand that they identify it. 9 times out of 10, they identify it readily enough once the appropriate threats or bribes are made. Sometimes the identification is "This is seriously higher tech than I've seen before; you've got some bad-ass enemies", sometimes the identification is a bit more specific than that.

But that's not how those scenes would really play out.

Here's how it would play out:

Hero: What is this?

Expert: It's a custom circuit board with unmarked chips.

Hero: I can see that; what does it do?

Expert: I don't know.

Hero: What do you mean, you don't know? Can't you find out?

Expert: Look, see that chip there? Let me pull some stuff off my shelf... The chip on the board looks identical to this chip here, or this one, or this one, or this one. They are all black, that size, with this many pins in these locations. Each of these chips does something completely different than the others. Each of them has a part number printed on the top. Your chip doesn't. I can't tell, just by looking, if it's one of these 4 types, or a hundred others that are also packaged like that. Or a custom chip fabbed in that package as well.

Expert: See that other unmarked chip? If I had to guess, I'd guess it's one of these (pulls a chip off the shelf). This is a FPGA, a "Field Programmable Gate Array". They're popular with designers because they can be customized after manufacture to perform virtually any complex logic function by writing what amounts to a computer program on them. An FPGA like mine could be performing encryption, selecting radio frequencies to monitor, or just about anything.

Hero: Can't you reverse-engineer it or something?

Expert: Sure, for $100/hr. It might take weeks, and even then there's no guarantee of success. Can you pay?

But of course, even though that would be accurate, it's not dramatic, and would never be done.

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Support parts, length of antennas, and generally their will be some standard chips like a flash memory for a recording device ect...

If it were a show like 24, which I don't watch and only know the basic premise of, it might be like this:

ring ring

Hero: Hello?

Expert: Hey, after working day and night I know what that thing you dropped off the night before does.

Hero: Oh, we finished that plot 2 seasons ago. Sorry we forgot to tell you that you could stop working on it.

Expert: Does this mean I don't get paid?

Mmmmmmm! Field Programmable Gate Arrays! Such fun toys with all sorts of nifty security features built in to prevent reverse engineering.

Yes, and in TV DNA tests take either 5 minutes or at most a few hours rather than weeks. And in shows like CSI they can always do everything in the exact same labs. And even actual techniques are wildly exaggerated in their level of capability.

Part of the problem is that the writers a) rarely care and b) the audiences don't know enough to even tell if something is minimally plausible.

There are however ways one could tell if the tec level of something was really high: For example, if they could tell what the device was doing and could see that it was using a lot less power than it should or was doing something that just shouldn't be technologically possible (Say from context you knew it was decrypting very large bit RSA on the fly).

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