Introducing Shwetak Patel

He's one of the brightest thinkers you'll ever meet. Writer Julie Garner pays him a house call and confirms that, yes, he puts his inventions and gadgets to work, but she finds out a whole lot more.

Shwetak Patel isn’t just a brainiac and a dad and a husband. He’s also the Washington Research Foundation Entrepreneurship Endowed Professor in Computer Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering. He received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2011. Here are some more things to know about him.

  • “Working with Shwetak is like drinking from a fire hose,” notes UW Regent Jeremy Jaech, technology and software entrepreneur. “He has a huge number of ideas and some of them are genius.”
  • He is married to Julie Kientz, associate professor of human centered design & engineering. For “date night,” they are working their way through the alphabet. “For ‘A,’ we did archery. We went up in a hot air balloon for ‘H.’ We crash-landed in somebody’s backyard.”
  • A curious sort, on a trip to San Francisco he took apart the self-serve boarding-pass kiosk at the airport. And the hotel card-key reader. And the airplane’s inflight entertainment system.
  • He can lock his front door using his smartphone. From virtually anywhere.
  • He’s got a Tesla . He’s monkeyed with it. The car is semi-autonomous, which means all he has to do is drive to the corner, turn right, and from there, it drives itself to the UW. But sometimes he inline skates to work.
  • During the week, their children are not allowed any computer screen time. The couple’s goal is to take their children to every single park in King County, more than 200 of them.
  • Displayed in the den is his collection of Alabama Crimson Tide football championship hats. “I have every one since I was born in 1981.” Why? He’s a native of Selma, Ala.
  • He uses his smartphone to track all the energy and water use in his home, right down to the toaster, espresso machine and even his phone charger.
  • The last book he read? It was about how to get kids to sleep.
  • “I can make a bed in under a minute.” He offered to demonstrate. “I grew up in a motel my parents ran. Some days I had to make 50 beds.”
  • He was the first on his block to get Gigabit, an elite broadband service. “I got it even before the Fire Department.”
  • As a new dad, he developed a device to detect if his child’s diaper was wet. It featured a 1-pixel camera, a battery about an inch in diameter and a color strip indicator. He soon realized that there were easier ways to tell if a baby is wet.
  • He and his colleagues developed a smartphone app that can detect newborn jaundice in minutes.
  • His 3-year-old could unlock an iPad when she was 1. Today, she enjoys 3-D printing.
  • “I like to build stuff. If I don’t build something in three days, I go crazy.”
  • His lab developed ways to measure lung function using an ancient 10-year-old flip phone.
  • He likes to yo-yo.