[Dave Birch] It’s pretty obvious that RFID is going to transform a variety of retail supply chains, adding value to the services delivered to the end customers.

Izzy’s Ice Cream Café in St. Paul, Minnesota is putting to use RFID technology for giving real time updated on flavors available in its dipping cabinet. It offers more than 100 flavors but serves only 32 in its dipping cabinet at any point of time. The cabinet comes equipped with readers capturing every flavour’s corresponding labels embedded with an RFID tag. The reader captures information 22 times every second and is sent to a system which updates website of the parlour so that customers get to know what is available even before they enter the store. Coloured dots are projected on the wall of the store or TV behind the counter so that the customers get to know the flavours available.

[From The RFID Weblog: RFID chip and ice creams]

Now this is a great use of the technology and I’m sure it’s only one of the ways in which retailers will find that RFID provides a platform for better management, better service and entirely new services. Nevertheless,iIt’s a step from this kind of use of RFID to the idea of an “Internet of things” has been around for a while.

The “Internet of things” (can’t we think of a better name? the everynet? the allnet? — what about “skynet”, or has that been used somewhere before?) has two essential components: the concept that everything is connected to everything else, and the concept that everything can distinguished from everything else. Universal connection and universal identification. If we take the former for granted and take the Electronic Product Code (EPC) as an example of the latter, we can immediately see that this will create as many problems as it solves (which is not a reason for not doing it, since it also creates many opportunities). It’s easy to see why. Suppose that your phone reads the EPC from my underpants. So what? Now your phone knows that I am wearing either Gucci underpants or a pair of Primark underpants with a Gucci chip in them to impress the ladies. If such phones and such tags were to exist, what would actually happen? What would be the impact on society of knowing what everything is and where everything is all the time.

At the recent Intellect meeting on “The Internet of Things & Augmented Reality“, I thought that the conversation would focus on the technologies, but it is fair to observe that the issue of privacy end up dominating the discussion. Reflecting on it afterwards, I realised that the discussion had proceeded — and it was a very interesting discussion — without any explicit articulation of the goal. What should we be aiming for? How will privacy work?

This is a difficult question to answer, because it depends on a currently non-existent identity layer. Since this identity layer doesn’t exist, it’s worthwhile to think about what it might look like. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about how it would work in terms of key and certificates, product and provenance. But I’m making those architectural suggestions inside a cultutural framework.

These are not really technical questions. They are values questions. And we will need to use the answers to inform how the Internet of Things develops. We must ensure we have ways to integrate our values into the technical possibilities.

[From Putting people first » Bringing European values to the Internet of Things]

This is a difficult formulation. It is not all all clear to me what “our” [she means “European”] values are. To demonstrate why I have such trouble understanding what these values might be, consider the parallel case of Internet browsing. Some people want your browsing history kept for years in case you are pedophile or terrorist, some people want it deleted after a reasonable period, some people don’t want it recorded at all. Which is the European value? Should my phone be able to determine whether your Calvin Klein boxers are real or fake?

These privacy issues used to be, I suppose, regarded as a niche interest and (since goods aren’t yet tagged in this way) remote. But the growth of social networking has brought them into the mainstream and I think that it might at least be possible to explore what these European values might be by looking at the case of social networks, then working out what our response to these is, and then applying this response to emerging RFID infrastructure. After all, the boundary between real and virtual is already getting pretty fuzzy when it comes to social networking and there are plenty of people experimenting with ideas that cross it.

A Poken is a connected business card, when you meet people you want to connect to, you touch their ‘poken’ and get added to their Open Social network.

[From RFID and physical social networks · Touch]

Now, to be honest, I can see the idea of a machine-readable business card that takes you automatically to a person’s LinkedIn page as being pretty useful. But it would be good if the machine-readable business card plugged in to an identity infrastructure so that when you touched it you got the person’s identity, sure, but also their certificates that a relevant to your transaction and perhaps other reputation-related information as well. You’d need a bit more memory, but that’s not a problem.

For instance, Tego Inc., based in Waltham, is developing tags that can hold as much data as a suitcase-size PC did in the 1980s. This summer, Tego plans to introduce a 64KB RFID tag that could be used to do such things as store all of an airplane part’s installation and repair history.

[From Radio frequency technologies are put to tests of security – The Boston Globe]

Wow. Now I think this is worth paying attention to, because storing the history (another aspect of reputation) of an object in the object itself is a real game-changer, as the management consultants say. We’d better get these European values defined and use them to constrain the emerging architecture pretty quickly.

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


  1. Ah… so that’s what she meant when she said “Is that a chip in your underpants, or are you trying to impress me?”

  2. I’m sure you’ll be delighted to hear we have spent the last 18 months looking at what European values are in the context of the future Internet, in a study for the European Commission. Interim findings at http://www.internetfutures.eu/
    [Dave Birch] Thanks Ian, will read the exec summary later today.

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