September 20, 2011

Visionary innovator wins MacArthur ‘genius’ award

MacArthurs award announcement for Shwetak Patel

Shwetak Patel, assistant professor of computer science and engineering and electrical engineering has been named one of this years MacArthur Fellows.

Patel, who explores how people and computers interact, is one of 22 people honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  The $500,000 no-strings-attached prizes are often referred to as the “genius” awards.

“It feels like winning an intellectual lottery,” Patel said during a phone interview from China, where he was traveling when the award was announced.  Patel said he literally collapsed to “the floor” when he received his early-morning call from the foundation about a week ago in his Seattle home.

Patel’s most recent research has been in building a new class of low-cost and easy-to-deploy sensing systems for the home, called Infrastructure Mediated Sensing, which leverages existing utility infrastructures in a home to support whole-house sensing.  To allow residents to track their energy usage down to the level of individual appliances and fixtures, Patel’s distinctive approach leverages existing infrastructure — such as gas lines, electrical wiring, plumbing, and ventilation ducts — and requires only a minimal number of small, wirelessly connected sensors attached to the central hookup of each of these utility sources. When coupled with a machine learning algorithm that analyzes patterns of activity and the signature noise produced by each appliance, the sensors enable users to measure and disaggregate their energy and water consumption and to detect inefficiencies more effectively.

“Shwetak is an inspirational teacher.  As an innovator he understands the needs of the consumer and designs products that are simple but powerful devices for the home.   Im excited to see what hell do with this award,” said Matt O’Donnell, dean of the UW’s College of Engineering.

Shwetak Patel

Shwetak Patel

In addition to the resource conservation applications of his sensor systems, Patel is also exploring their potential for home security or elder care, as they serve the related function of sensing human activity and monitoring movement throughout a building’s rooms. While envisioning cutting-edge new tools to address pressing social challenges and to make the buildings we live in more responsive to our needs, Patel devises elegant, simple solutions that dramatically reduce the cost of implementation.

The 29-year-old has won multiple honors in the past few years including the New York Times top technology of the year, MITs Technology Review TR-35 award for innovators under the age of 35 and was recently named a Microsoft Research Faculty Fellow.  Patel was also a founder of Zensi, Inc., a demand side energy monitoring solutions provider, which was acquired by Belkin, Inc. in 2010. He earned a bachelors degree in 2003 and a doctorate in 2008 from the Georgia Institute of Technology before coming to the UW in 2008.

The MacArthur grants are given each year to United States residents of any age and in any field who show “exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.”  MacArthur Fellowships come without stipulations or reporting requirements and offer Fellows unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create, and explore.

Patel showed humor when discussing the award. He will face a class full of students next week in his “Embedded Devices” course, and he expects “genius” jokes.  “My wife is already making those,” he explained. His wife, Julie Kientz, is an assistant professor in the department of Human Centered Design & Engineering and The Information School, and an adjunct professor in Computer Science and Engineering.

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