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.
Ashton understood right way that RFID would be useless without a single global standard. He put together a coalition of high-powered sponsors that now includes Coca-Cola, Gillette, Pepsi, P&G, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Wal-Mart and other major companies, as well as researchers from MIT. The Auto-ID Center, which opened in October 1999, is now the focal point for the worldwide effort to create very low-cost RFID tags.

The center is working on chip designed to help lower the cost of the tags. It will have the minimum components needed to carry a 96-bit electronic product code (similar to today's bar code). More important, it’s creating codes for identifying individual products, methods for describing physical objects in ways computers can understand and an IT infrastructure for Asthenia’s Internet of things.

The center’s 50-odd sponsors each coughed up $300,000 to join (or $150,000 for vendor companies). Some 30 full-time staff and grad student’s toil away in crusty rooms and tiny labs scattered around the MIT campus. A sister center at Cambridge University in England has another 12 staff, and other centers are planned for Asia and Latin America.

Ashton and his team began the first large-scale field trial of the Auto-ID Center's technology last October. All signs are that the technology works and that the system can handle the enormous amount of data that is generated by reading the RF tags. As the system is built out, Ashton continues to travel the world preaching the word. Big consumer companies seem to get it. The Auto-ID Center's membership continues to grow by two or three global companies a month. Retailers seem a little slower on the uptake. Target has joined the Center, but most other big retailers seem to be adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

"I can only assume they are pursing a first to be second strategy," says Ashton. "But that doesn’t account for the amount of time it takes to figure out how you are going to use this technology."

There are a lot of naysayers who point to problems with RF technology. Signals don't pass through metal. Interference from other RF systems can screw prevent data from being read properly. Readers have problem reading many tags at once and so on. Ashton says these technical obstacles are being overcome by his team daily.

"I’m the stupidest person on this team by a long, long way," he says. "If I have a problem I really need to solve, I can put a couple of cases of Dr. Pepper in the room, lock the door, and I’ll get a solution."

Ashton’s biggest concern isn’t that the technology won’t work; it’s that RFID isn’t attracting the entrepreneurial talent and money needed to create billions of tags and IT systems to cope with massive amounts of data. "There’s an incredible need and a surprising lack of people stepping forward to meet that need," he says. "It’s starting to change. There’ are more startups getting more investment more easily this year."

So how long before RFID is widely used to track goods in the supply chain? Ashton estiamtes it will take five years for RF tags to become common in the supply chain, three if all goes well with the Auto-ID Center's effort. And one day, when you are telling your grand children about the old days when washing machines and microwaves had to be set by hand, think of Kevin Ashton says.
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