Recognizing Kevin Ashton’s Contributions to RFID Journal

By Mark Roberti

The co-founder of the MIT Auto-ID Center and soon-to-be author wrote a column for 10 years that added greatly to the world's understanding of RFID's role in business and society.


I have been remiss. Kevin Ashton wrote his last column in the November/December issue of RFID Journal magazine, and I never publicly acknowledged his contribution. Shame on me.

Kevin contributed his first column in January 2004, titled “Time to Face Reality.” He wrote that those promoting the Electronic Product Code were deemed “unrealistic.” So-called “realists,” he said, were just pessimists, and it was time to put aside biases against the new technology and take a more realistic approach.

His final column, “Street Smarts,” was about how cities need to embrace the Internet of Things or risk being left behind. The column began: “In 1680, the City of London installed oil lamps on its streets. The lamps were left burning each night until midnight. The reduction in crime and the increase in nightlife were so great that after 1736, the lamps were kept lit until sunrise.”

That is what made Kevin’s columns both interesting and insightful. He brought his knowledge of history, society, politics and other areas of life to bear, and put radio frequency identification—and technology more broadly—in a larger context.

In a 2009 column, he wrote about the Internet of Things, a term he coined a decade earlier: “We need to empower computers with their own means of gathering information, so they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves, in all its random glory. RFID and sensor technology enable computers to observe, identify and understand the world—without the limitations of human-entered data” (see The ‘Internet of Things’ Thing).

And in 2010, he wrote about the need to recycle and RFID’s role in doing so. “In 2030, things will be different for one simple reason: Consumerism can’t scale,” he said. “There isn’t enough stuff for everybody on the planet to live wastefully, and even if there were, there wouldn’t be enough space for all the waste. Twenty years from now, the world’s population will have grown by about one and a half billion, and a larger proportion of that population will be enjoying middle-class lives. It will be too expensive to manufacture everything we need from new raw materials, ship the finished products across oceans, and cart it off to be dumped in a landfill after a few days or years of use. Something has to give—and that something will be how we throw things away” (see Put RFID in the Trash).

The solution, of course, is to recycle. But as Kevin pointed out, “It’s virtually impossible—and certainly not cost-effective—to sort trash manually, or to build machines that recognize what an object is made of simply by ‘looking’ at it. RFID is the technology that will enable automatic sorting. Sooner or later, everything will get an RFID tag, which will broadcast identification information to sorting machines and separators so all trash can be reprocessed properly.”

One of my favorite columns was “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In that 2010 article, Kevin explained that the tragedy of the commons “is one of the oldest conundrums in economics. A medieval village sets aside some common land where all herders can let their livestock graze. It’s efficient, and everyone benefits—that is, until a few people allow their animals to eat more grass than is their fair share. These ‘free riders’ spoil the pasture for everybody, and soon there’s no more grass and no more commons. And, in a conclusion with equal parts justice and irony, the free riders lose—there is nowhere for their animals to graze, either. The moral? Everyone can benefit from communal resources, as long as all participants do their part and play fair.”

What does that have to do with RFID? Well, Kevin pointed out that “Every time an RFID company pushes for publicity instead of buying an ad, or tries to slip its message in through the back door of a trade show without paying the price of admission, or doesn’t pay its dues to an important trade association or standards body, it’s taking a free ride. Yes, there’s an obvious short-term benefit: a few dollars saved. But, in the long run, it’s a strategic mistake. If those [trade publications, trade shows and industry standards bodies] die, the market dies, too.”

It was Kevin who first got me interested in and excited about RFID. The world he envisioned—with tiny, low-cost RFID tags on pallets, cases and items, enabling them to be efficiently tracked and managed—was not just compelling, but inevitable. Lately, Kevin has been working on a book about technology, which he will soon spend time promoting. I wish him well. And I look forward to reading it, because it will, no doubt, contain great insights, layered historical context and no small dose of cogent advice.

Kevin, thank you for your contributions to RFID Journal, and forgive me for being so tardy in recognizing those contributions.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.