The chip that saved the world (batteries not pictured)
“I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but the whole thing started when I saw that Tom Cruise movie Minority Report,” says the American-born Yushi Sakamoto from his home in downtown Miami. “When they stole his kid, it almost gave me a heart attack because I have a kid that same age. That’s every father’s worst nightmare. I became obsessed with the idea of someone stealing my kid and became determined to do something about it.” Over the next few months, Sakamoto spent hundreds of hours in his basement devising a chip that he could use to locate his son at any given time. It was an obsession that bordered on mental illness, but, as we’ve learned in the past few decades, the obsessions of the mentally ill are the primary force behind most of our greatest inventions. Ask Howard Hughes. “My wife was totally against it because she thought I wanted to put it under his skin,” he told us. “I may be nuts but I’m not that nuts. All I wanted to do was stick it in his shoe or on a big watch he’d always want to wear.” Sakamoto had no intention of telling his son about the chip. The whole key to its success was in its undiscoverability.
$32,000 later Yushi was ready. “Now that I look back, I can’t believe how idiotic the first prototype was. It had no power source.” Yushi had based his chip on a popular model used to identify dogs. Only, the dog chip can’t be tracked because it can’t send out a signal. You can only use it at kennels and dog pounds and pet stores where they have the equipment to read the chip, but if the dog’s lost in the desert, he’s dead. And there lies the fundamental flaw with the first round. You need to send a signal up to a satellite to tell it where you are, and you can’t do that without a battery. “You want to be able to track this thing over hills and through buildings. Just like a really good cell phone,” says Yushi. “And for that, you need the power to send a strong signal straight into space.”
The second prototype contained an eight-volt battery. It was too bulky and expensive for mass production, but it did the job. The chip was linked to some crude GPS (Global Positioning System—doye) software that Sakamoto needed the internet to run. Not great if you just lost your kid in a crowd, but it took away Sakamoto’s fear of losing his son for days on end in a Laci Peterson scenario. “Having to run to a computer every time your son gets kidnapped kind of defeats the purpose, so I put together a funny-looking handheld GPS thing I could track him with. I must have looked like a lunatic carrying that thing around,” says Yushi, who spent tens of thousands more shrinking his original Locator Chip®.
Now the size of a Blackberry, the Locator Chip® can tell you exactly where your kid is in relation to you. You can link it to road maps if he’s really far away, or just ask it for general directions if he’s only ten feet away.
Of course, Sakamoto realized that, like all brilliant inventions, his Locator Chip® was capable of much more. What about other people’s kids? They make them wear those ridiculous dog-collar springy-leash things, don’t they? The fat watch he gave his son isn’t in the least bit humiliating. Nobody even knows it’s there. Sakamoto decided it was impossible to avoid producing the Locator Chip® on a grand scale. As the guy in that pig movie Babe realized, “If an idea keeps sticking in your head, it must be a good one.”
The problem was, the cheapest he could do it was for $10,000 a pop. What parent was willing to pay that kind of money for peace of mind? Sakamoto was stunned at how much the demand exceeded the supply.
“The problem with making these on a grand scale is nobody is allowed to know they exist—like those fake cans of household cleaner people use as secret banks. As soon as the criminal knows they exist, they cease to have any value to the consumer. I needed the first round of customers to be rich and discreet and eager to try this out.” Sakamoto’s first client was a Colombian friend of the family whom we shall refer to as Mr. Suarez. Mr. Suarez had been threatened with kidnapping several times since he achieved a lofty position in the Colombian government. Most of his colleagues had. There is so much child kidnapping in Colombia that it’s an industry in itself, a vicious tax the very poor have decided to impose on the very rich.
Mr. Suarez and a small group of friends flew Sakamoto down to South America for a secret rendezvous. They met in a hotel conference room and for three days Sakamoto explained to dozens of powerful people how simple and priceless his invention was. By the time he left, Sakamoto had orders for 56 “Super Kid Watches” (only the parents knew how misleading this name was).
“After the Colombia deal, I knew this invention was going to change the world. I now had the capital to do research and development and encourage other, bigger investors.” To paraphrase Trix breakfast cereal, this invention wasn’t just for kids anymore. Sakamoto’s father, a prominent import-export guy in New York (he owns his own port), happily dug up the capital to mass-manufacture his son’s Locator Chip®. “After I got the secret Colombian money I could go public with this thing. Eventually, I got the price point so low that people could attach a Locator Chip® to everything from their car keys to a sacred family heirloom. At that point it would actually be good for thieves to know about it, because it would be too small to find. It could only discourage crime.”
It worked. Today Locator Chips® go for $50 a sheet. That means you get 6 chips, each with its own power source (about the size of two watch batteries) that you can stick on anything you want. Today’s students install a Locator Chip® on their computer even before they set it up with applications. $3,000 mountain bikes are no longer a source of constant stress for their owners. Stereo systems are no longer considered a good score for a thief. Parents are agreeing to pay for their teenager’s cell phones on the condition they agree to get one with a Locator Chip®. Locator Chips® are now so easy to come by, thievery is on the verge of extinction. Poor junkies. It’s no longer worth it to steal something. No thief is going to sit there dismantling his new score in the hopes of finding a hidden Locator Chip®. It’s not worth his time.
“The only thing I could still see as a plausible crime anymore would be purse thieving,” says Yushi. “They steal the purse, run like hell, get the money, and throw the purse away before they can get tracked. They’re about the only ones left.”
However, even purse thieves had better watch their backs. Sakamoto’s chips and batteries are shrinking every few weeks and so are the Locators. (We’ve already seen them go from awkward t-shaped crosses to slightly-larger-than-normal cell phones.)
At $350, the Locator is still pricey, but students and poor people are free to log on to LocatorChip.com and track their lost items using the company’s software—for free. That brings the investment back down to about $8 a chip. At that price you might as well attach one to your dick (just kidding).
It’s been a slow and difficult climb for Yushi, a mission so time-consuming he almost broke apart his family in what would have been the ultimate of cruel ironies, but he made it. He invented a cheap and easy piece of equipment that has changed the world forever.
“It’s hard for people to understand how much this is going to change our lives,” says detective Jason Mitchell of the NYPD, whose precinct just invested over $2 million in the chips for various police equipment and even personnel. “We got two or three calls last year involving victims who not only knew when and where they were robbed but where the stolen merchandise was! Instead of picking up someone’s stolen bike, we’ve ended up busting warehouse-size operations. It’s remarkable, and the smaller Sakamoto can make these things, the more crime we are going to be able to crack down on. If he gets to the point where he can attach it to money or drugs, you’re going to be looking at a different country in a matter of only a few years.”
There is one “problem” that the police are reluctant to talk about: Vigilantism. When someone is 6'4" and they had their bike stolen a mere three minutes ago, they are not going to wait around for the police to fill out paperwork. They are going to go get that fucker right now. “There have been a few scattered reports of people taking the law into their own hands,” admits Mitchell, “especially in some of the rougher areas. It may become a problem in the future, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” One can only lie back and dream of the day when the biggest problem the police have to deal with is vigilantes kicking the living shit out of thieves. Sigh. Can you imagine?