Practical Futurist: An Internet Of Things

Often the technologies that reshape daily life sneak up on us, until suddenly one day it's hard to imagine a world without them--instant messaging, for example, or microwave ovens. Other watershed technologies are visible a mile away, and when you contemplate their applications, the ultimate social impact looks enormous. A good example of the latter is radio frequency identification chips--RFID, for short.

An RFID chip is a tiny bit of silicon, smaller than a grain of rice, that carries information--anything from a retail price, to cooking instructions, to your complete medical records. A larger piece of equipment called an RFID "reader" can, without direct contact, pull that information off the chip and in turn deliver it to any electronic device--a cash register, a video screen, a home appliance, even directly onto the Internet. RFID is the technology used now to automate toll taking at bridges and tunnels; drivers are given a small plastic box with an RFID chip inside, allowing them to drive through the tollgates without stopping. An RFID reader in the tollbooth senses the information on the chip and the toll is automatically deducted from the driver's account.

The first wide-scale applications of RFID will be in retail. At a major industry conference next week, Wal-Mart is expected to urge its suppliers to adopt RFID--the same way that, twenty years ago, the giant retailer jump-started the use of bar codes. And some manufacturers are already on board. Gillette, for example, recently placed an order for half a billion RFID chips that they will begin to use to track individual packages of razors.

Ultimately, a reader on every retail shelf will be able to automatically sense when the store is low on inventory and automatically place an order to restock. RFID should also permit more accurate tracking of merchandise within the store--drastically reducing the theft or other loss generically called "shrinkage" in the retail business. And RFID will ultimately allow consumers to simply walk past the cash register with their purchases; the register will read the RFID chips and automatically deduct the purchase from their account. Where was RFID when Winona Ryder needed it?

Inventory and checkout counters, however, are only the start of possible RFID applications. Japanese bookstores, for example, plan to use RFID to track how customers use books in the store--how many times and how long is each book taken off the shelf to read, before someone actually buys it? The European Union is considering placing a tiny RFID chip in every paper Euro note--providing both counterfeiting protection and the ability to give each bill a unique serial number. An American company, Verichip, is developing an RFID chip implant that will permanently store your medical records under your skin, so any hospital equipped with a reader can know all your pertinent health information even if you are unconscious. A simpler version of this subcutaneous chip is already implanted to help identify pets.

The implanted RFID chip is certain to inflame Christian fundamentalists, some of whom believe that such chips are the Satanic "mark of the Beast" predicted in Revelations. A more immediate concern, however, may be the question of privacy. Already civil libertarians are raising the issue that RFID chips in clothing--to take just one example--could be used to track individuals. Such tracking might be merely annoying: a kiosk that greets you by name when you revisit the store where you bought the shirt you are wearing. Or it could be downright sinister, in the hands of a surveillance-crazed Big Brother police force. As a result of these concerns, the current industry specification for RFID includes a way for the chip to be "killed" at the point of purchase, once its pricing and inventory functions have been completed.

The idea of "killing" RFID chips is still controversial, since many dreamers envision exotic post-purchase uses for the tiny chip. A reader-equipped washing machine could properly adjust itself for the clothes that have been loaded. An RFID microwave would set itself to properly cook an entree. Microsoft's Home of the Future in Redmond, Washington, uses the technology in the kitchen: when you call in on the telephone, an RFID-equipped refrigerator reports that it's out of milk, and when you set ingredients on an RFID countertop it suggests appropriate recipes. RFID can also directly connect physical objects to the Internet. For example, when you can't remember how to program your TV remote control, you would just wave it in front of an RFID-reading Internet terminal that would automatically bring up the latest instruction page from the manufacturer's Website.

At present it looks like retailers may give shoppers the option of having RFID chips killed after checkout. But for applications like chips in paper money, there likely won't be a choice: a banknote with a dead RFID chip will no longer be valid. In all likelihood, there will be both approved and underground ways for consumers to kill RFID chips. An early tip from the trade magazines: put any RFID-tagged object in a microwave, and the intense electromagnetic radiation of the oven should fry the chip instantly. In any event, one thing is certain: the rise of RFID chips will provide new horizons for hackers for years and years to come.