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Seattle genius tackles energy, healthcare and the future of computing

For every variation in sound, pressure, temperature or electromagnetic wave, Shwetak Patel sees an opportunity. He is the master of white noise, the enemy of inefficiency. He made a name for himself with ElectriSense, a home energy monitor that reads noise to tell you how much electricity is used by each lightbulb and appliance in real time. But ElectriSense is only the beginning; there are no limits to what he and his lab might achieve.

What drives Patel is not what can be achieved. It’s what should be achieved. And with a mind as sharp and creative as his, the ‘what ifs’ are endless: What if an app could distinguish between the sound of a regular cough and the cough of someone with Tuberculosis?

What if you could use sonar to turn any surface (even mid-air) into a touchscreen for your device?

What if doctors could replace a $10,000 machine with a prescription app (the first of its kind) to measure lung capacity and assess pulmonary issues at home?

And what if a battery could charge itself by using slight variations in room temperature?

These are just four of the more than 20 projects Patel’s lab, the University of Washington’s Ubiquitous Computation or UbiComp lab, is currently working on.

In the southeast corner of the University of Washington, the UbiComp lab feels a long way from the spires of the Suzzalo library and the bricks of the U’s Red Square. Monitors hum and flicker and there’s a faint smell of hot plastic from the 3D printer in the corner. There are no decorative touches here — only grad students and computers.

When I knocked, Shwetak was slouched over his desk, his back turned to the door. He looked up, remembered we’d agreed to meet and started to talk. He didn’t stop for the next hour.

Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Patel is an associate professor of Computer Science at the UW. He has been written about in the New York Times, the Economist and Wired and featured on PBS and NPR, to name a few. In 2011 he won a MacArthur genius grant. And it was announced in early November that Belkin — the company to which Patel sold his startup, Zensi — will set up an R&D lab in Seattle’s Columbia Tower. According to Patel, they did so to be closer to him. He is 32 years old.

A native of Alabama, Patel majored in computer science at Georgia Tech, but has a strong background in electrical engineering. This combination of skills — his command of both hardware and software — is really the perfect skillset for the 2014 economy. More and more, companies like Microsoft and Apple want total control over both. Patel’s dual strengths wield him an incredible amount of freedom: He need not rely on anyone to match his programs to his devices or vice-versa.

But what really sets Patel apart is his practicality. It’s his commonsense application of heady ideas that makes him a certified genius.

Patel’s work is grounded in the exploitation of white noise, be it acoustic or electromagnetic. If you took physics at any point during high school or college, you were probably taught that energy never disappears. It only turns into some other form. Friction causes heat. In a collision, energy escapes as noise. Imagine the hundreds of millions of other minor inefficiencies that surround us.

That is the noise Shwetak Patel seeks to use.

At Georgia, he developed the ElectriSense energy monitor. The general concept isn’t new. Bill Gates’ house has been wired for years. The issue is that creating the sort of smart house Gates has requires hundreds of sensors or video cameras. This is not only impractically expensive, but annoying. “People don’t even change the batteries on their fire alarms, and that’s an emergency device,” says Patel. So, he set out to scale the idea for regular people.

It turns out that each light, TV, blender, refrigerator emits a signature electromagnetic frequency. If you can zoom in enough, the noise of each appliance is quite distinct. Knowing that, Patel was able to develop a single monitor that can re-trace that noise to its source and tell you how much energy is being used.

The ElectriSense looks like a wireless router. It feeds information to an app on your phone which shows you what’s being used in real time. “I can see when the cleaning lady gets there because she starts using the vacuum,” Patel says.

The potential energy savings are clear. When Patel hooked his up, he realized that his Comcast cable box accounted for 15 percent of his home’s energy. “If everyone in the nation just started watching Netflix [instead of cable TV],” he explains, “we could cut our energy use by 15 percent.” In fact, it turned out that these Comcast boxes were not compliant with U.S. Energy Star energy efficiency ratings. Now, as a result of Patel’s technology, they are.

Patel and his lab quickly expanded this technology to monitor water and gas and, in 2010, he sold the whole endeavor to Belkin International. “I don’t know how much they’ve sold,” said Patel, appearing not to care. “$600 million maybe?”

If sales don’t get him excited, the greater implications of a non-invasive, cheap monitoring system certainly do. As interesting as energy tracking is, Patel has loftier ideas for the technology.

Elder care, for example. Because we interact so much with our appliances, their use can tell us much more than just how efficient we are — Patel knew when his cleaning lady arrived and could watch exactly what she was doing. TV’s on and the vacuum isn’t? She’s not doing her job. Likewise, if your elderly relative’s blender was on for too long or if they hadn’t used any water in their home by 10:30 a.m., you could infer that something was wrong.

The idea that our interactions with the devices around us can deliver previously invisible (or inaudible) information — and that it can be done cheaply — opens the door to a million ideas.

What about sensors that can detect humidity and mold growth? Or how about an app for detecting jaundice in newborns? And how about a sleep sensing device you can place next to your bed? Patel’s lab is working on all of these things too.

These kinds of ideas can scare people — Am I going to trust an app? Do I want to be so wired? — and the UbiComp team has indeed met skeptics, mostly from the medical world. “They say, ‘You’re not an MD, you shouldn’t be working on this,’” says Patel. But he argues that that is precisely why he and his lab should be in this field. “We look at these problems in a totally new way.”

Engineers, computer scientists, MDs tend to come at problems from a siloed perspective, based only on what they themselves know — often at the expense of affordability, efficiency or accessibility. Patel’s team breaks down the siloes and brings all of these expertise areas together.

Mr. Patel has been working with Microsoft for a number of years on a few projects, including a new wearable device, Microsoft Band. The details aren’t public yet, so he’s not allowed to talk about it. But his involvement, as well as Belkin’s desire to be near his lab, shows that the mainstream is recognizing the value in someone with a mind like his.

There’s no doubt his technology could change the world. Don’t be surprised though if it’s Patel the person — a computer scientist/electrical engineer with the mind of an entrepreneur — who sets the new standard for 21st century success.

Images courtesy of Ron Wurzer.

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