|Alien Has Landed |
Alien Has Landed
A growing technology strikes some as a perfect tool, while others think it's a sign of the apocalypse
By Stett Holbrook
THE ALIEN invasion has begun.
Still hidden behind warehouse walls and receiving-dock doors, the technology won't proliferate for several years. The Silicon Valley company with a sci-fi name is at the forefront of an integrated circuit-powered revolution that may someday rival the Internet in its reach, touching virtually all corners of the global marketplace and beyond.
Its proponents envision an "Internet of things" that links everything, everywhere. They see dollar signs as well as better-stocked shelves, safer medicine, less lost luggage, fresher produce and an ever-growing list of business and consumer benefits. Others regard the coming revolution as the dawn of an unprecedented era of corporate and government surveillance--and privacy invasion.
As devices and life forms merge, locating lost dogs and children will be a snap. Chip-implanted Mexican government officials can now badge their way into secure inner sanctums without even having to flash a card. Loose tongues have already raised macabre South-of-the-border scenarios of kidnappings and severed limbs as chips begin to be used to track, authenticate or grant access and financial privileges.
Welcome to the brave new world of Alien Technology and radio-frequency identification.
Tag, You're It
In the next few years, radio-frequency identification (RFID) may be everywhere: in supermarkets, in your clothes, in your home, even in you. It is imagined that RFID will one day replace the omnipresent bar code. But RFID isn't a new technology. It's only moving into the mainstream now because the price of the technology is dropping and several major corporations are adopting it, creating a get-on-the-bandwagon-or-be-left-behind mentality.
"People are getting extremely excited," says Kathleen Schaub, vice president for Sybase Inc.'s information technology solutions group. The Dublin, Calif.-based company is a leading provider of database software and plans to get into the get into the RFID industry itself. "It just absolutely explodes the amount of data coming into a company ... the physical world can now be part of the Internet."
For all its potential, RFID is a relatively simple technology. RFID uses radio waves to automatically identify people or objects. In its most common applications, RFID stores a serial number that identifies a person or thing on a microchip. The grain-of-sand-size chip is attached to a tiny antenna. Together, the chip and antenna are called a tag. Most tags are about the size of a small Band-Aid. The antenna allows the chip to transmit information to a reader. The reader then converts the radio waves from the tag into digital information that's read by computers.
RFID was first used by the United States in World War II to distinguish friendly and enemy aircraft. The first commercial application dates back to the 1970s, when Los Gatos electronics inventor Charles Walton sold a lock-opening key-card system to Schlage. While he saw widespread uses for the technology, he was too early. Back then, the bar code was the ascendant form of product identification. Now that RFID's time has come, Walton, 82, watches as others run with the technology he was advocating 30 years ago. While he continues working on RFID in his lab, his patent expired in 1997.
While consumer applications of RFID are limited now, the technology is widely used. FasTrak toll passes, remote-entry key fobs and ID chip implants in pets are all RFID-based technology. In many ways RFID tags are like bar codes in that they transmit data about a product, but unlike barcodes, which must be held up to a scanner to be read, RFID tags are readable from up to 20 feet away. And where bar codes must be read one at a time, an entire pallet full of products can be read simultaneously, dramatically reducing the time--and workers--required to inventory products.
As it's being applied now, RFID is used to strengthen the weak links in commercial and government "supply chains." As merchandise moves from manufacturer to distributor to wholesaler and finally to retailer, things often get lost. Inventory is misidentified. Quantities are improperly calculated. This can mean retailers order too much product or not enough. Products fall out of date or spoil. Customers get mad and shop elsewhere. Prices rise.
With RFID, proponents say, these errors will become a thing of the past. Queried with a reader, a pallet of RFID-enabled toothpaste will speak up and say, in essence, "Fifty cases of Crest toothpaste, right here." Perishable items like milk could be programmed to respond, "There are only two cases of us left, and we'll be sour in three days. Better order more."
Supply-chain RFID applications are going to be the first roll-out of the technology, but other uses will follow right behind.
"Retail supply chain is going," says Tom Pounds, Alien Technology's vice president for corporate affairs and product development. "2005 is the year of implementation. It's deploying."
Other uses, while they may sound far-fetched, are only a few years off. In the home, it's imagined that clothes will tell a smart washing machine that they should be washed in cold water or an RFID-wired turkey will tell the oven how long it needs to be cooked. In the supermarket, an entire shopping cart of groceries could be scanned at once without unloading your cart. If you've got an RFID-enabled credit card or customer-loyalty card, the RFID reader will scan your purse and debit your account.
But it's talk of RFID tags appearing on individual products like cosmetics, automobile tires and clothes, and potentially linking them to the people who purchased them, that gets privacy advocates nervous.
RFID critics fear the technology will offer corporations and the government irresistible access to not only our shopping habits, but a peephole on our movements outside the supermarket. RFID tags could potentially be read through your car or your clothes or as you move about, identifying not only what you buy, but who you are, critics say. It's expected that the distance at which the tags can be read will increase over time, but in the near future critics fear the placement of readers at strategic points such as store and parking lot entrances, freeway on/offramps, public buildings, etc.
"You could put these things anywhere," says Katherine Albrecht, a privacy advocate and leading critic of RFID.
The Patriot Act already allows federal agents to seize personal and business records if the records can be shown to relate to terrorism or spying. Government agents can also conduct "sneak and peak" searches, entering a home or business secretly without immediately notifying the target. In the post-Sept. 11 world, will Constitution-stretching officials like Attorney General John Ashcroft be able to resist using RFID to accomplish their goals?
Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Center as well as elected officials are also concerned about the privacy implications of RFID technology.
Prime Mover Directive
While the public is generally unaware of the potential perils and promise of RFID, Alien Technology has been at the center of the coming revolution. Alien Technology occupies a sprawling modern building in Morgan Hill's growing high-tech area off Cochrane Road. A company that calls itself Alien offers plenty of fodder for opponents who fear the technology's intrusion into private life, but Alien seems to have a bit of fun with its name.
Inside the company's dark tinted glass front doors, two robots stand sentry in the lobby: Robby the Robot, who made his debut in the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet as an iconic image of advanced but friendly technology ("Danger, Will Robinson!"), guards the right flank of the lobby. On the left stands Gort, the silver-helmeted giant who turned his death ray on a paranoid Washington, D.C., in 1951's epic The Day the Earth Stood Still, trying to convince earthlings to live in peace or face destruction. Pretty good corporate messengers to have around.
Alien's front hallway comes straight out of another sci-fi standby: the U.S.S. Enterprise. The brushed steel and rivet-studded walls are as Star Trek as Spock's ears. A key card-activated metal door opens by sliding into the wall. All that's missing is the whoosh of the Enterprise's portals.
Alien isn't out to control the world. The company just wants to supply the world's largest corporations and most powerful government with tiny tags that will identify virtually everything in them.
Today, RFID is a roughly $1 billion a year industry. But in the next few years, the business is projected to jump to about $5 billion a year. With the new applications being unveiled all the time, it's anyone's guess how big RFID will become.
"I think it's going to be a very major industry," says vice president Pounds, a thin man whose casual dress style and restrained demeanor peg him for a tech executive. "If you go out 10 years it has the potential to be a ubiquitous technology."
Alien is a privately held company and one of a half-dozen radio-frequency identification (RFID) manufacturers in the United States (Matrics is another RFID leader; the companies seem to have a thing for unsettling names). Alien has approximately 130 employees and is supported by venture capital, about $140 million to date. The company is expected to break even next year. While still relatively small, Alien's been busy cranking out millions of RFID tags to feed a growing market, positioning it to become the Ford Motor Co. of the RFID industry.
One of Alien's market advantages is a patented technology called fluidic self-assembly that allows the company to make large volumes of RFID tags quickly and cheaply. Instead of using a robotic arm to put tiny microchips in place, a process that is not well suited to speed and large quantities, Alien uses a technique in which the chips are placed in liquid and then allowed to settle into place. The process is unlike any other chip-assembly technique on the market, and it allows Alien to make large quantities of tags at a very low cost, Ponds says. For orders over 1 million, tags go for 20 cents each. But the industry is watching Alien to see when and if it makes good on its pledge to manufacture tags for 5 cents each. When that happens, expect the RFID floodgates to open as the technology becomes affordable for medium- and small-sized companies.
Alien's growing chip assembly prowess has meant steady growth since it was founded a decade ago. The company has landed several key contracts, including the U.S. Department of Defense, Gillette, San Francisco International Airport and other clients. It has opened a second assembly plant in Fargo, N.D.
But now Alien is about to hit the big time. There's nothing like a dictate from the world's largest retailer that its top 100 suppliers adopt RFID technology by 2005 to put a little wind in your sails. Wal-Mart has given the industry and Alien in particular a monumental shot in the arm. The Arkansas-based superstore chain mandated that its top suppliers use RFID tags on cases and pallets going through its three Dallas area distribution centers by January 2005. The rest of the store's suppliers must adopt RFID for Dallas area warehouse operations by the end of 2006.
"They are clearly a prime mover," says Pounds.
Wal-Mart is generally regarded as one of the most efficient retailers in the business, but even the behemoth faces shortages attributable to hang-ups in its supply chain management. It's estimated that the stores are out of stock about 7 percent of the time. RFID can help solve that problem, says Pounds.
According to published reports, thanks to Wal-Mart's mandate Alien is expected to expand its customer base tenfold and quadruple its annual revenue this year. Asked how many of Wal-Mart's top 10 suppliers are coming to Alien, Pounds says "a majority," the hint of a smile forming on his lips.
"We have a significant majority market share among those Wal-Mart top 100," he says.
For now, Wal-Mart and other companies like Target and Albertson's in the United States and Tesco and Metro in Europe are focusing on supply chain RFID applications. Other uses include tagging pharmaceuticals to prevent counterfeiting, store checkout scanners and tracking systems on container ships and trucks.
See the URL for the rest, it is a long article. Coot