Will the convergence of search technology and RFID chips improve our lives or forever put us in a fishbowl for all to see?

A few days ago my glasses disappeared. Over the years my long range eyesight has grown progressively worse and while I need the glasses for seeing things in the distance, my short range vision is still nearly perfect. For this reason I never wear glasses while working on the computer or watching television, and I was somewhere between my computer and the television when the glasses pulled a socks-in-the-dryer routine and magically vanished.

Now, several days later, I’m conjuring up thoughts of a sinister KGB plot to mess with my head as the lost glasses continue to be one of my life’s great mysteries.

The thought occurred to me that if I was looking for something online, I would simply turn to a search engine, type in a few words, and on a good day I would find what I was looking for. But we have no search engines for the physical world. At least not just yet.

Search technology experts have been concentrating on developing algorithms for finding digital information in what we know and understand as today’s version of digital information. However, bright technologists in the future will have a much different appreciation of what constitutes information as every physical object is reduced to its digital attributes.

I recently read a book titled “Spychips” where Harvard authors Katharine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre discuss the emerging problems that will be associated with RFID chips. RFID chips are the tiny signal-emitting chips that are being added to products in the marketplace to enable businesses to monitor product movement from the manufacturer, to the distribution center, to the store shelves, and beyond.

The Spychips author’s thinking is that eventually all physical products that we buy will have imbedded RFID tags and this in turn will lead to the ultimate invasion of privacy as governments and other organizations will be able to track our every movement, at every moment, of every day.

While they did a good job of exploring the potentially evil side of this technology, they spent far less time on describing the overall usefulness and positive side of advancing the science. More on this a bit later.

Personally, I wish I had an RFID chip on my glasses, and that I would be able to somehow walk up to my computer and say “Hey good friend, where are my glasses?” But the Spychip ladies prefer to dwell on the sinister people sitting in back rooms asking questions like “Why did Cheryl Jones drive to the blue house on Elm Street while she was supposed to be at work?”

To put this in perspective, there is a downside to all new technology, and every piece of technology we invent can be used for evil instead of good. As an example, I can use a book to kill someone by repeatedly hitting them over the head with it. But I’m really not in favor of banning books just because that potential exists.

While I do share concerns for the potential misuse of RFID technology, I’m much more inclined to think that the problems simply create additional opportunities for solving the problems, rather than thinking that our only option is to reach for the “kill switch”.

History has shown that whenever there has been an attempt to ban or eliminate a technology, it only delays the development. The drive for creation is relentless and inevitable. Sooner or later someone else will step up to the challenge and work on creating an even better, faster, cheaper version of the technology.

Its important to understand that RFID technology is only an interim step. As I had mentioned earlier, we will eventually be able to use search engines to find any physical objects.

“It depends on your perspective”

Many years ago the famed father of fractal geometry, and gifted mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot was presented with the question “What is the distance around a lake?” His response was “It depends on your perspective.”

If you look at a lake on a map from 100,000 foot altitude, it’s very easy to draw a line around the lake and measure the distance. If you look at a similar map from 8,000 foot altitude you will notice many more bays and inlets that weren’t visible from the higher altitude, and drawing a line around the lake will yield a much greater distance. As you move down through the different altitudes, more and more detail becomes visible and the distance continues to increase as suddenly the line is being drawn around clumps of dirt, and later grains of sand, and eventually individual molecules.

The distance around a lake approaches infinity.

The Mandelbrot distance-around-a-lake perspective has far reaching implications. As we develop the technology for seeing tinier and tinier particles, we will also be able to define physical objects in unique and different ways. And one way will be to define every object as digital information – digital information that will be searchable, traceable, and yes, even spyable.

While the argument will arise that RFID chips have the ability to emit signals that make them uniquely and unreasonably intrusive, the reality is that all objects emit reflected light and this too will some day be the source of uniquely and unreasonably intrusive information.

This type of technology is inevitable and will likely be developed sometime within the next generation. But as with all new technology, once the early stages of the technology are introduced, engineering teams and policy makers will work hard to minimize the potential for misuse and abuse.

Understanding Privacy

The privacy issue is one that cannot be viewed from the myopic privacy-is-the-only-thing-that’s-important perspective. Privacy cannot be viewed in isolation without considering how it affects security and convenience. There is a three-way tension between privacy, security, and convenience and one cannot be changed without affecting the other two.

Think of this as a balance of power struggle between the forces of well-intentioned people.

When privacy is increased, security and convenience are diminished. Similarly, when security is increased, privacy and convenience are decreased. The goal is this type of equation is to build well-balanced systems where boundaries are properly drawn and no one issue dominates the social and business landscape.

All new technology begins with a lawless Wild West stage. Typically the technology is poorly defined and poorly understood and for an initial time period the developing industry is self-regulated. Over time, as revenue streams and competition increase, an official public policy piece will come into play and help define the playing field.

However, one of the difficulties associated with modern technology is that we are creating borderless economies, and an individual nation’s sovereignty over a specific piece of technology, and its ability to regulate it, is confusing at best. This is an issue that will get messier before it gets better.

A global economy is emerging with strong interrelated cause and effect relationships coming into play. But not all of them are well understood. It makes the policy and regulatory end of the spectrum more difficult, but it makes the idea of placing a ban on certain technologies completely impossible.

My goal today is to simply find my glasses. I don’t know enough yet to register my glasses with their own distinct IP address, so today’s search technology in this matter really does me no good.

Perhaps in 10 years I will all be able to search and find physical objects online, but that will be far too late for this desperately needed pair of spectacles.

By Thomas Frey, Executive Director of the DaVinci Institute