Kevin Ashton May Change the World

The Auto-ID Center Executive Director's vision of an open system for tracking goods with low-cost RFID tags will have an effect on nearly everyone someday.
Apr 15, 2002April 15, 2002 - The name Kevin Ashton probably doesn't mean much to most people. And truth be known, it may never be a name that's featured prominently in history books. But Kevin Ashton may very well turn out to be one of those people who have a profound impact on the world.

As executive director of the Auto-ID Center, Ashton travels near and far promoting his vision of a day when every item – from cans of Coke to nuclear missiles – is tagged with a RFID chip so it can be tracked from the day it’s manufactured to time it’s recycled. If he and his team pull off this wildly audacious goal, the way every company makes and moves product will be forever changed. Boxes of cereal and big screen TVs will tell inventory control systems where they are, taking all the guesswork out of supply chain management.

But that's only the beginning. Once chips are put in everything from packs of chewing gum to carburetors, there will be unimagined opportunities to improve products. Forget entering cooking times on your microwave or setting the dial on your washing machine for delicate fabrics. Chips in these products will tell appliances what to do. Products will communicate with machines -- and each other.

Sounds far-fetched. And there’s no shortage of people who point to the cost of the chips – currently about 50 cents to a dollar – and say the intense, deadly serious Brita is daft. His response: "People who think it can’t be done shouldn’t waste the time of those who are doing it."

Ashton talks about creating an "Internet of things" that will be bigger than the existing Internet. He clearly relishes technological innovation: he sports a Titanium G4 laptop and the shelves of his impeccably neat office are lined with Wired and other IT publications. But he’s no starry-eyed techie. Ashton was a brand manager at Procter & Gamble (he’s about the only person at MIT who wears a suit and tie every day).

Ashton became interested in RFID back in 1997 when his team at Procter & Gamble created a hot shade of Oil of Olay lipstick called Hazelnut. Ashton would visit retailers and find the Hazelnut lipstick on the shelves in two out of five stores. When he saw an early version of a contactless smart card, he hit on the idea of ripping the chip out of the smart card and putting it on his lipstick. At the time, he'd never heard of RFID and had no idea how the smart card worked.

After doing some research, Ashton made a presentation to some executives at P&G. He proposed using RFID tags as a way to solve the company's supply chain problems. At the time, RFID tags cost a couple of dollars, and he knew it would be a few years before the price got down to the point where you could put a chip on a tube of lipstick, but he convinced one VP in London it was worth exploring. And when MIT got interested in the idea, an idea that once seemed ludicrous suddenly seemed possible.
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