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Apr 15, 2012—Apr. 16, 2012

Coming Together for a Common Goal
By Kevin Ashton

I nearly didn't go to the meeting in April 1999 that led to the founding of the Auto-ID Center. A colleague at Procter & Gamble asked me to sit in for him at an event hosted by MIT's department of architecture, in Cambridge, Mass., and I reluctantly agreed. The topic was homes of the future, and one of the presenters was David Brock. Sanjay Sarma, his colleague, added comments from the back of the room. At the time, I was on a mission to put RFID tags on every product P&G made. I had been a brand manager working on Oil of Olay, and had struggled to keep our products in stock on store shelves. I happened across RFID in credit cards in 1998, and thought it could solve our problem. I wondered if there was a way to make the tags cheaper by having them point to information on the Internet. David talked about using RFID tags as a way for a robot arm to learn about objects in its environment, and suggested the data should be stored not on the tag but on the network. This was the first time I had heard anybody else say this.

The next day, I met with Sanjay, and we frenetically exchanged ideas across a white board in his office. Things happened quickly after that. In the space of a few months, Alan Haberman, of the Uniform Code Council (UCC), suggested we set up a research center and agreed to sponsor it, I persuaded P&G and Gillette to join, and P&G relocated me to MIT to become the center's executive director. The Auto-ID Center was announced at the Smithsonian Institution at the end of September 1999, and opened officially on Oct. 1.

Things were basic at first. My office was a converted stationery closet with no windows, and I had to unplug a shared fax machine to get online and collect my e-mail. For the first three months, my desk consisted of the boxes in which I had shipped my belongings. And we had only three sponsors. That changed gradually during 2000, as CHEP, International Paper, Philip Morris and others joined us. By the end of that year, we had made enough progress to plan a field test, which started on Oct. 1, 2001, when the first EPC-tagged products—pallets of Bounty paper towels—were received at a Sam's Club in Tulsa, Okla. Every few months, we gained more support, as existing sponsors introduced new companies and word of our progress spread. In an effort to make our RFID system global, we shared the money we were raising with other universities around the world, and opened centers in Australia, China, Japan, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. This brought in more international sponsors, until most of the world was represented at the center's ever-expanding sponsor meetings.

These sponsor meetings became huge affairs, almost like conferences, and culminated in representatives of some 103 companies joining us for our final sponsor meeting in a skyscraper high above Tokyo, in September 2003. Other meetings had taken place in Atlanta; Santa Clara, Calif.; Celebration, Fla.; Zurich; and Cambridge, England, as well as many at MIT. We closed the center's doors on Sept. 30, 2003, and handed off responsibility for our Electronic Product Code technology to EPCglobal, a new, nonprofit standards body operated by GS1, global successor to the UCC. The centers at each university became the Auto-ID Labs, dedicated to continued research into RFID and its applications.

Looking back, it feels like we accomplished a lot in those four years, but at the time, we couldn't go fast enough, and all our progress seemed difficult and hard won. There were battles over standards, tag prices, system decisions, privacy and patents. Many people outside the center openly expressed skepticism that we, or our technology, would ever amount to anything much.

In every case, the community that the center had become was able to find pragmatic, consensus-based solutions to even the toughest challenges—a real testament to the power of what people can accomplish when they trust one another's intentions and work toward a common goal. There were too many people involved to mention everyone, and to mention anyone risks leaving someone out, but anybody who ever attended an Auto-ID Center meeting, helped write an Auto-ID Center research paper, authored an Auto-ID Center standard or contributed to an Auto-ID Center prototype has my deep and abiding gratitude. Together, these hundreds of people from all over the world joined as one and worked passionately and tirelessly to do things many thought could not be done, achieving remarkable results by refusing to believe in the impossible and choosing instead to believe in each other, themselves and the future. At some unmarked moment, sometime between 1999 and 2003, this brilliant and disparate group of people took their mission past the tipping point and reached critical mass, at which point the crazy ones were no longer those on the inside who believed it was possible, but those on the outside who believed it wasn't.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center.
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