Thursday, November 12, 2009

I'll have two killer whales and a bottle of milk please...

The idea of adding a barcode to a product in a shop for making the life of a checkout operator easier is one of those inventions which we now hardly think about but has revolutionised the way we shop.

Retailers no longer need to price every individual item but need only place one large display price for the consumer to refer to. It makes things easier for the consumer too, knowing that we will almost certainly not be overcharged at the till due to a human error.

Barcodes were originally developed for labelling railroad cars but only took off when supermarkets saw their advantages and began to use them widely. It was two Americans, Bernard Silver and Joseph Woodland who patented the technology in 1949 and described both the linear type of barcode which we are still familiar with, as well as a 'bullseye' circular design.

However the two men were ahead of the technology available to them at the time, with IBM reporting that while the idea was very interesting, the technology to process the information wasn't yet available in the early 1950's. It wasn't until the early 1980's that the technology began to be rolled out in supermarkets across the US. Unfortunately, Bernard Silver never got to see the success of his invention as he died in a car crash in 1963.

Nowadays, barcoding has become almost universal. Sitting at my desk, I can see that my computer is barcoded by the manufacturer and contains a unique product number. Internally, most of the components from the disk drive to the memory is all barcoded for ease of tracking.

If I decide to take a break later, I can drive to the supermarket in a car which is barcoded and pick up a barcoded lunch. I can pay for my barcoded sandwich and barcoded chocolate bar at the self service checkout, where I get to scan my own barcoded product, as well as my unique supermarket loyalty card. This allows the supermarket to record what I like to purchase and target marketing at me specifically.
Going back to the office, I could pop into the library where my unique membership card will be scanned along with the books I want to borrow. In short, my whole life is a series of barcoded events. From airline tickets to identity cards, the conspiracy theorist could have a field-day.

Some of the uses to which barcodes are now put would surely surprise the original inventors. Scientists currently meeting in Mexico City at the 3rd International Barcode of Life Conference are putting the finishing touches to an agreement which aims to give every organism on Earth a unique barcode based upon its genetic fingerprint.
Organisers at the Barcode of Life Initiative (BOLI) say that the technology will aid researchers in a host of areas which rely on accurate identification of species of plants and animals, as well as other organisms. This includes identifying and protecting endangered species, sustaining natural resources including fish stocks, understanding marine biodiversity, carrying out basic research in taxonomy (identifying and labelling distinct species), controlling agricultural pests, stopping vectors of human disease such as mosquitoes and monitoring environmental quality.

While not exactly barcoding in the sense that Silver and Woodland imagined it, the initiative aims to use a relatively minute stretch of DNA (about 648 DNA "base-pairs" compared to the billions of such base pairs which make up many organisms) called a barcode sequence.

This barcode sequence will be tracked in a range of organisms. Subtle differences within this 648 letter code will give the researchers a unique label for every species. This particular barcode sequence, while excellent for use with most animal, butterfly, bird and fish groups isn't suitable for use with plants. The meeting in Mexico this week aims to propose a plant barcode sequence so that the work can continue.

With the information now available online, researchers are hoping that the job of identifying species has now become a whole lot easier.


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