Somehow, that statement just doesn't ring with ominous, Big Brother overtones. The consulting firm, however, is placing a big bet on remote devices and sensors that will gather information on the location, status and temperature of millions of objects in the world, or of their surrounding environments. Though some say these systems could corrode individual freedom, others believe they'll give people and businesses important information they can't get now. Accenture doesn't make the sensors; instead, it prowls the labs of other companies and tries to come up with ways to weld disparate technologies into a cohesive whole.
Accenture's Chief Scientist, Glover Ferguson, is in some ways the head prowler. For the past few decades, he's worked at the company trying to figure out what's next. Ferguson sat down with CNET News.com to discuss RFID, the general state of privacy and what your car radio is saying about you.
Q: Give us a quick run down on Accenture's lab.
Ferguson: It first got started when Accenture was still part of Arthur Andersen & Co. We were about to get into the software business in a big way, and the argument was that we can't be in the software business and not have a lab. It's just illogical. So, the first site was in Chicago. Why in God's name would you put a research lab in Chicago? We actually had a headquarters there, and the thought was that if we put the researchers anywhere else, it could be too easy to forget that they existed.
It was the first organization to break the dress code. They said you can't have researchers in suits, because no one will believe they're actually researching anything.
What sort of projects do you tackle?
Ferguson: One of our charters is to construct a five-year moving vision as to what we think is going to take hold, with the goal to create a working prototype.
In 1997, we started looking at some early RFID chips. RFID is actually a WWII era invention for identifying friendly aircraft. So, they did commercialize it, but on very, very high-end assets. We asked if you could drive it down to revolutionize supply chain. The answer was yes, but it would have to wait on standards. When EPC global got started, that started to shape up.
Anyway, the first prototypes tend to be done by research and tend to be pretty quirky because they speak to as broad an audience as possible. The first one in RFID was a talking medicine cabinet. The first thing it does is recognize you; there's a little facial recognition thing going. It's an entirely local application, so you're not out there (on the Internet). It recognizes you and says, "Good morning, the pollen count is pretty high today, you'd better take your allergy medicine."
So, you reach in and grab a pill bottle and pull it out and that's where the RFID is. It says, "That's not yours, that's the wrong medicine," and you put that back, pull out another one and it says, "That's the right one. Now take two of those." And the mirror--instead of just being a mirror, it has a screen. All of these things are now starting to be actually discussed commercially, but in '97 it was "Oh, come on."
We showed it around and we got questions like, "So, Accenture is going into the medicine cabinet business?" No, we said, "Look at the capabilities this is demonstrating." One of our operating group said, "You know, my client sort of gets it, but it'd be better if we could particularize it for his business," His business was gas cylinders. So, the next one we built was an RFID system to track the life cycle of a gas cylinder: everything from filling to "do not fill this tank with that gas," to knowing where the inventory was.
Industrial customers have flocked to RFID, but consumers still have a lot of concerns about privacy.
Ferguson: Consumers are willing to sacrifice some of their privacy, with two caveats. One, they get something for it. Two, they understand what, exactly, they've given up. If you take the data and do something else with it, you violated one of the rules. If you take their data and don't give them anything for it, but just use it to enhance your own profitability, they don't care for that either. But after that, if you don't do those two things, it's not such an issue. I think we still have a lot of discussions to get over before we get comfortable with where this is going, and that's what you do in a society to get the vote on these things. California will probably start with laws that are too far to one side, but eventually we'll end up with something we're all comfy with.
I used to be teased by my British colleagues about how sloppy Americans are with their personal data on Web sites. "We in the U.K. value our privacy. You Americans give it up all over the place. We value our privacy so much we don't even have pictures on our driver's license."
I took this for years, then one day I said, "Wait. London has more CCD cameras per square inch than any other city in the galaxy. How dare you talk to me about privacy!" They said, "That's different. That's security." Where do you draw the line? Americans will give up data if
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