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Heaven or Hell?

RFID may put millions of people out of work, or it may boost productivity and bolster our economic prosperity.
By Bob Violino
May 11, 2003May 12, 2003 - After my op-ed on RFID's Consumer Benefits, I got an angry e-mail from some guy who demanded: "Who do you work for?" He was angry at me because I'm promoting a technology that "is gong to put millions of people out of work." Great, now I'm not only responsible for the end of personal privacy; it's also going to be my fault when we see a return of bread lines. I would probably take some perverse pleasure in being Bill Gate's rival as Public Enemy No. 1 if I had even a tiny fraction of his wealth.

In all seriousness, the employment issue is one I've spent a lot of time thinking about, and frankly, it concerns me far more than the possibility that RFID will be used to invade consumers' privacy. The last thing I'd ever want to do is promote a technology that would lead to mass unemployment, but I hardly think that's the case with RFID.

Back in March, I wrote about 0HIO, a term coined by John Greaves, director of RFID at CHEP, for "zero human involvement operations" (see Getting to 0HIO). "Zero human involvement" doesn't necessarily mean companies will lay off lots of people. OHIO could be heaven, or it could be hell.

It will be hell if companies use RFID to develop completely automated distribution centers and factories and eliminate as many jobs as possible. Higher unemployment not only wrecks families and creates massive social problems; it also reduces the number of people who can buy products. Using RFID primarily to cut workers would eventually create a horrific downward spiral -- fewer people to sell to means less revenue, which means you cut more workers, which means you have even fewer people to sell to and so on and so on.

But there's another view of 0HIO, one where companies eliminate excess inventory and become more efficient. They are able to produce more goods at lower prices, which means more people are able to afford them. As sales rise, workers are shifted from low-level jobs -- like scanning bar codes -- to more value-added jobs, like customer service, marketing and fulfillment.

A friend of mine says I'm rationalizing, but I don't think so. Consider that for the three years 1998, 1999 and 2000, companies around the world spent an incredible $1.2 trillion on technology, according to research firm IDC. During that period, the unemployment rate in many industrialized companies was the lowest seen in more than a generation. Two million jobs have been lost in the US since the collapse of the bubble economy, but at 6 percent, the unemployment rate is still lower than it was for most of the past 25 years.

Moreover, it's essential that we do more with fewer people in the future. That's because the population is aging in most countries. A smaller pool of workers is going to have to support a more people who have retired and who need health care and other support services. If productivity remains constant over the next 30 years, most countries will grow poorer because they will have to devote a disproportionate share of resources to supporting seniors. RFID has the potential to allow younger workers to produce more, which means they will be able to create enough wealth to support our aging societies.

Who do I work for? That's easy. I work for the readers of RFID Journal. Is this publication a tool of big business, as my correspondent's question implies? I sure hope so. I hope RFID Journal is a tool that helps large companies and small ones become more efficient. And I hope that RFID technology fulfills its great promise to boost productivity. Our future prosperity may depend on it.

Mark Roberti is the Editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, send e-mail to mroberti@rfidjournal.com.
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