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Technologist wins 'genius' award for sensor tech

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Shwetak Patel of the University of Washington won a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship for his work on easy-to-deploy sensor technology that tracks household energy consumption and makes buildings more responsive to our needs.

Your credit card bill tells you how much you spent on gas last Tuesday, groceries on Wednesday, and football tickets on Friday night. Wouldn't it be helpful if your electric bill did something similar?

This isn't pie in the sky for Shwetak Patel, a 29-year-old technologist who received a $500,000 "genius" grant Tuesday for his work on inexpensive and easy-to-deploy sensors that can make our lives more efficient and enjoyable.

The computer science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle is among 22 innovators in fields ranging from music and journalism to genetics and history who were named 2011 MacArthur Fellows

Patel is the techiest of the august bunch, a recognition he told me "that shows computer science can play a huge role beyond what people typically think of computing as." 

He received the honor for work on sensor technology that measures things such as energy and water use down to the level of individual appliances and faucets.

This is akin, he explained, to a credit card bill or telephone bill that details the price of individual purchases and calls, information that might compel a consumer to eat out less or call grandma more often.

"Right now if you get your water or electric bill it only tells you the aggregate amount of consumption which a lot of people don't really get a good understanding of what that means," Patel said.

Knowing how much energy you consume watching reruns on TV or keeping beer cold in a second fridge in the basement might prompt a change in behavior.

His sensors aren't the first products to provide details of individual component consumption, but unlike other approaches, all a consumer needs to do is plug or screw one sensor into an outlet or hose bib to get information on all the appliances in a house. 

The sensors read the "noise" that is generated by individual appliances or toilets to infer when something like the TV is turned on or the upstairs toilet flushed.

For example, a TV makes a different noise as it pulls on the power supply than does a compact fluorescent light bulb. The sensor infers this difference and then presents it to the consumer with a user-friendly graphical interface.

In the future, the data could also be supplied to utility companies so they can better understand when people do certain types of activities or shipped off to appliance manufacturers.

"We have a way to feed that information back to Whirlpool or GE and say here is how often your appliance is in the duty cycle," Patel said. "That can really help to design the system in a different way to make it more efficient and more reliable."

Patel sold a startup with this technology to Belkin International in 2010 and said the company plans to begin selling commercial versions of them this fall. Going forward, he is turning his focus to health. 

First up are health-monitoring systems that use mobile phones to keep a consistent check on people with breathing conditions such as asthma.

"You can't be in the hospital all the time, nor can you see your doctor everyday or every hour," he noted. 

A mobile phone equipped with his sensor technology, though, could turn the phone's microphone into a monitor that listens for coughing fits or changes in lung capacity.

These types of applications, according to Patel, show that computer science is more than nerds in a corner writing code. It can "solve really important health problems and really important energy problems."

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com.

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