‘Genius grant’ winner focuses on the future of computing

Shwetak Patel, a UW assistant professor in computer science & engineering and electrical engineering for the past three years, has been honored as one of this year’s MacArthur Fellows. Patel is the 15th UW faculty member to receive the prestigious “genius grant,” which comes with a no-strings-attached award of $500,000.

“I had no idea at all,” Patel said when asked if he knew he was being considered for the award. “The organization is really secretive, and they didn’t call me until a week and a half before the official announcement.”

Besides his time teaching at the UW, Patel, 29, already founded and sold a start-up company, Zensi, Inc., a demand-side, energy-monitoring solutions provider; he has been named a Microsoft Research Faculty Fellow; has been honored by The New York Times for developing the top technology of the year; was awarded MIT’s Technology Review TR-35 award for innovators under age 35; and completed his doctorate at the Georgia Institute of Technology before coming to UW in 2008.

Patel’s research focuses on how humans and computers interact, with his most recent research revolving around low-cost and easy-to-install sensory systems for residential homes. The idea is that by installing this wireless technology to the already existing utility source, a person can monitor activity on individual infrastructure, such as the refrigerator or faucet, to detect inefficiencies and ways in which appliances are eating up a family’s utility bill.

The MacArthur grants are given to individuals of any age and area of study who show “exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.”

“One of the things that’s interesting about this award is that it’s really broad,” Patel said. “I want to look into areas that don’t have traditional funding opportunities, such as research projects that are really futuristic, where a funding agency wouldn’t know how to support it. Research in the health department incorporating technology is one example.”

In addition to his resource-conservation application with his sensor systems, Patel hopes to incorporate the technology’s potential for elder home care or home security, since the technology can track human activity and monitor movement in a home or building’s rooms.

“This is one of those awards that everyone wants to get, but you can’t apply for it,” Patel said. “You can’t advocate for yourself, so it was pretty shocking.”