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Intelligent Machines

Wrist Radio Tags

Consumers are getting used to the idea that nearly all products, packages, or pallets of merchandise will soon bear radio frequency ID tags to help manufacturers and retailers manage inventory. But sooner than most people realize, they may be wearing such tags themselves: a few amusement parks, hospitals, and even schools are pressing ahead with projects to put RFID tags into wristbands to keep track of patrons, patients, and students.

The technology makes medical care safer and more efficient. Staff at the 30-bed general surgery unit at the Jacobi Medical Center in New York, NY, for instance, are outfitting patients with RFID wristbands that record their names, genders, dates of birth, and chart numbers – the codes for their electronic medical records. Doctors and nurses use tablet PCs equipped with RFID readers to upload this data from a patient’s wristband, and the computers then retrieve the patient’s record wirelessly from the hospital database. “We’re hoping we will eliminate the potential danger of giving the wrong medication to the wrong patient,” says Robert Sidlow, associate medical director for the North Bronx Health Care Network. Sidlow hopes to install the RFID system in Jacobi’s new 500-bed building, opening later this year.

RFID has also found a place in amusement parks. At Paramount’s Great America in Santa Clara, CA, $5 will get a parkgoer an RFID bracelet encoded with his or her first name. One of 65 antennas scattered throughout the park – whichever is closest to the person at any given moment – reads the bracelet information and sends it to the park’s central servers. Parents who lose their children can go to any of several kiosks, wave their own bracelets in front of the kiosks’ readers, and bring up maps showing their kids’ locations.

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Not everyone is amused by such applications. While tracking and identifying people has obvious benefits, slapping RFID tags on people could infringe on their privacy if the technology is misused, warns Kenneth Farrall of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, DC. Though Farrall admits that the early applications of RFID tagging seem to do more good than harm, he cautions that as the technology grows more sophisticated, “it could become more difficult to control the data.”

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