Experts Weigh In on RFID’s Tipping Point

By Mark Roberti

A survey of more than 800 technology professionals found that most believe more than 1 trillion objects will be connected to the internet by 2022, using RFID and other technologies.

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Last year, the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software & Society launched the Technological Tipping Points survey, which asked respondents for their views on 21 "tipping points"—moments when specific technological shifts hit mainstream society. The aim was to provide insights into the expectations of information and communications technology experts on key emerging technologies.

The survey asked respondents for their perception of when these tipping points have or will occur. Choices included "It has already happened," "20+ years" and "never."

The World Economic Forum received 816 responses, which were aggregated and analyzed. The results showed that, on average, the experts believe that by 2022, more than 1 trillion objects will be connected to the internet via radio frequency identification, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee and other wireless technologies.

"With continuously increasing computing power and falling hardware prices (still in line with Moore's Law), it is economically feasible to connect literally anything to the internet," the report states. "Intelligent sensors are already available at very competitive prices. All things will be smart and connected to the internet, enabling greater communication and new data-driven services based on increased analytics capabilities."

It's not clear, of course, what the experts meant by Internet of Things technologies. Some people don't consider RFID an IoT technology (even though the term emerged from the RFID industry). If you discount RFID, then it is hard to imagine 1 trillion items being linked to the internet by 2022. Here's why.

Most IoT technologies except passive RFID require a power source, usually a battery. There are several things that will inhibit wide-scale use of these technologies to connect everyday objects to the internet. First, not everything in the world has a power source to tap into. Even with some items that do have batteries, such as power tools, you might not want to connect to the internet using the object's battery power because that could shorten battery life.

Another issue is maintenance. Batteries eventually die and must be replaced. This means that connecting hundreds of billions of objects to the internet with battery-powered radios would require armies of people to change batteries.

A third issue is cost. A low-cost Bluetooth device today is roughly $10. That's too expensive to put into billions of objects. Of course, the cost of the electronic components will come down as volumes ramp up. But the cost of batteries could remain an issue. A three-volt lithium coin battery costs roughly a dollar, and it might not provide enough energy to power a Bluetooth device for very long (though manufacturers are continually improving radio devices to reduce power consumption).

A final issue is size. Devices with batteries tend to be larger and bulkier, which makes them harder to integrate into—or stick onto—some objects.

So it's likely that passive RFID will be used for the majority of items connected to the internet. And it's highly likely that there will be more than 1 trillion passive tags used on—or in—objects. Clothing is one area in which RFID adoption is quickly gathering momentum. The global market for clothing, textiles, footwear and luxury goods is roughly $3 trillion. If each item sold costs $10 on average, that would mean 300 billion clothing items, shoes and accessories are sold each year.

If all retailers are using RFID to track apparel, footwear and accessories, it's likely that books, cosmetics, jewelry, electronics, health-care products, home improvement, liquor, pharmaceutical, sporting goods, and other retail categories will also adopt RFID as the technology improves and prices come down. Whether all these categories will be using RFID en masse by 2022 is an open question. But if the experts are off, it is likely to be only by a couple of years.

Other Tipping Points Expected by 2025

Here is a list of technological milestones and the percentage of the 816 experts surveyed by the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software & Society who expect each one to happen by 2025.

• 10% of people wearing clothes connected to the Internet 91%
• 90% of people having unlimited and free (ad-supported) storage 91%
• The first robotic pharmacist in the U.S. 87%
• 10% of reading glasses connected to the Internet 86%
• 80% of people with a digital presence on the Internet 84%
• The first 3D-printed car in production 84%
• The first government to replace its census with big-data sources 83%
• The first implantable mobile phone available commercially 82%
• 5% of consumer products printed in 3D 81%
• 90% of the population using smartphones 81%
• 90% of the population with regular access to the Internet 79%
• Driverless cars equaling 10% of all cars on U.S. roads 78%
• The first transplant of a 3D-printed liver 76%
• 30% of corporate audits performed by artificial intelligence (AI) 75%
• Tax collected for the first time by a government via blockchain* 73%
• More than 50% of Internet traffic to homes for appliances and devices 70%
• Globally more trips/journeys via car sharing than in private cars 67%
• The first city with more than 50,000 people and no traffic lights 64%
• 10% of global gross domestic product stored on blockchain technology 58%
• The first AI machine on a corporate board of directors 45%

(A "blockchain" is a distributed trust mechanism used to track transactions in a distributed way.)

Illustrations: iStockphoto