Tracking Every Pill, Every Piece Of Food – The Internet Of Things Cometh

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Barcodes and data centers could curtail the global counterfeit drug market.

IBM may be a big scary corporation, but there are bigger and scarier worries out there. Among them is counterfeit prescription drugs. According to the computer giant, around 10% of the medication consumed globally is a forgery. Looks the same, tastes the same, but it could kill you. As more countries, like China and India and Brazil, get into the development and distribution of prescription drugs, the volume of international sales will increase. As will counterfeit production. Testing every pill before it is consumed is probably impractical, but tracking every pill may not be. IBM is developing the software that, in conjunction with barcodes, GPS sensors, and environmental controls, could help us ensure that every drug we take came from the manufacturers we trust and in the condition they required. It's the Internet of Things for prescription drugs, and it could save lives and streamline inventory all over the world. Watch IBM's executives explain their ideas in the video below. Universal tracking of medications, food, and more could be upon us very soon.

Think about this: there are probably around 1 billion people on the internet. Most are sending email, checking statuses on Facebook, and posting weird photos to /b/ on 4Chan. In the future billions of more people are going to come online, but they are likely to be dwarfed in number by an even larger group: smart objects. Tiny GPS sensors, QC barcodes, and environmental sensors are going to turn every shipment of goods (from apples to stereos) into a hive of digital information that is constantly uploaded to the net. Special software will be needed to track the trillions (yes, trillions) of objects that will compose this Internet of Things. IBM is looking to tackle that job head on, designing the systems that will organize data from objects and control things like temperature and humidity in shipping containers to optimize freshness. It's a daunting task, but as IBM describes in the video below, the benefits are great. And the alternative is chaos.

With prescription medications, the cost-benefit of tracking is measured not just in dollar amounts, but in lives saved. This means that companies are more likely to invest in the technology to track drugs in the near future. The simplest tracking methods, like rigorous monitoring of barcodes, have been in use for several years in various stages. Next generation solutions will include tiny GPS sensors embedded in every drug container so that the history of their travels can be closely watched. If a shipment of drugs arrives that doesn't have a complete verifiable history, chances are it's counterfeit. Add in environmental sensors (either on small drug containers or larger shipping containers) and you can optimize the condition that the drugs arrive in.

These same solutions can be applied to another widely shipped good: food. Like prescription drugs, food has a cost-benefit analysis that includes lives saved. Salmonella outbreaks and E. coli contamination regularly make the news, and if we could track global food shipments better we may be able to stave off these outbreaks quickly and effectively. Again, some tracking methods are already deployed, IBM itself has been running a trial food tracing project out of Manitoba Canada for the last few years, but the level of sophistication can be raised considerably. According to IBM, less than 1% of food is actually inspected before it enters the United States. In the absence of complete inspection, complete tracking may help us improve quality of food. In fact, environmental controls tied into sensors attached to food containers would have even more important impacts on food delivery than they do with drug delivery. There are billions of dollars and millions of lives that could be saved by better food tracking every year. Improved supply chain efficiency could also reduce the carbon footprint for shipping food around the world. Of course, we probably could save nearly as much money, lives, and energy by buying food from local farmers...but I digress.


Tracking prescription drugs and food are just two of the dozens of the opportunities that IBM is pursuing in relation to the developing Internet of Things. Their ongoing Smarter Planet initiative is looking to revolutionize every major computerized field through the use of smart objects. With a powerhouse like IBM pursuing IOT solutions, you can be sure that we'll see many of them deployed in the years ahead. Actually, IBM is pursuing many of them on a trial basis already. A global network of smart objects is coming, though, and with it will arrive a flood of data that will make our current online activity seem like little more than a trickle. It will take the might of corporations like IBM, or the innovative creativity of smaller competitors, to channel that flood into a resource that transforms our lives. Better medicines, healthier foods, and more could all be arriving soon. The Internet of Things is near...and get nearer everyday.

[image and video credits: IBM]
[sources: IBM Smarter Planet]

Discussion — 11 Responses

  • Anonymous November 1, 2010 on 8:01 pm

    Far more useful would be devices that tell you if something is legitimate at point of use. Things like “does this pill really contain these ingredients in these amounts?” (which tells you it’s real), or food testing devices that can tell you if a food is fresh or not, covered in pesticides, free of contaminants/disease, etc. “Tracking” is interesting, but it may just turn “drug counterfeiters” into “legitimate drug bottle counterfeiters” or “legitimate drug bottle thieves.” Whoops.

  • Anonymous November 2, 2010 on 4:15 am

    Sounds like the ultimate control grid for cartels. It’s going to be a privatized police state where every good that is shared without permission from the intellectual property holder is deemed illegal and subject to SWAT raids. It’s the end of any freedom in the market place whatsoever.

    It also sounds like the Office Total Information Awareness’ wet dream and the Pentagon’s full spectrum dominance. I guess the paranoid ranters who said they where turn all goods into tracking devices where right. No thanks! No more Borg technology.

    • Kronosderet November 2, 2010 on 9:46 am

      easy Septus otherwise Ill have to send unlabeled black helicopters after you!!!

      seriously thou, how does goods tracking equals police state? are you high or what?

      • Championdetailservices Kronosderet November 3, 2010 on 5:53 pm

        Humans are “human resources” which = goods for the elites/NWO etc…

      • Garythemessage Kronosderet November 4, 2010 on 12:42 am

        Who said anything about black helicopters? Are you denying the police state that is already in existence? Do you deny SWAT teams breaking into homes, with tear gas and tanks, to confiscate controlled substances? Septeus7 mentions “full spectrum dominance.” Are you insinuating that Septeus7 made that phrase up? That is the Pentagon’s own term, buddy. It ain’t paranoia if you are truly in danger. Are you asleep or what?

  • Toby Downton November 2, 2010 on 12:50 pm

    Great article, sounds like an important need being fulfilled by the long-awaited “internet of things”.

    One point – there are nearly 2 billion people on the internet, double the number you stated:

    World total = 1,966,514,816

  • Ka PAw November 2, 2010 on 1:49 pm

    I think this is just propaganda to keep their intellectual property/regulatory/anti-competition schemes going.

  • john November 3, 2010 on 7:04 pm

    When you purchase a drug made in china or india that is!!! Hegelian dialectic. Create a problem offer a solution . Always take away freedom and assert control.

  • Ukrxxapzxs November 3, 2010 on 7:49 pm

    I’m with septeus7

  • Garythemessage November 4, 2010 on 12:47 am

    Um… how about just not taking pharmaceuticals? And producing your own food locally? You realize people have been doing that for thousands of years? And the lifespan for humans has been 70-80 since Biblical times? Sure, it goes up and down from time to time, from place to place, but it’s still a very good margin of life: 70 years shall be the span, 80 for the pure in heart and perhaps those who honor their mother and father. Heck, most of my family members that have gotten themselves addicted to Big Pharma have died before 70. Case closed for me! And you can drink the fluoride for me!

  • Paul Johanson April 6, 2011 on 7:15 pm

    So, I’m interested that this article doesn’t mention RFID at all. It’s often touted as being ideal for these applications…