Conversations at KCTS 9/Shwetak Patel

Conversations: Shwetak Patel
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Shwetak Patel

University of Washington assistant professor Shwetak Patel was named a 2011 MacArthur Genius Award recipient at the age of 29. We talk with Patel about his work and what the MacArthur Award means to him.

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About the Episode

University of Washington assistant professor Shwetak Patel talks about being named a 2011 MacArthur Genius Award recipient which includes $500,000—no strings attached. Patel has figured out novel ways of using home electrical systems. We talk with Patel about his work and what the MacArthur Award means to him.

About Shwetak Patel

Shwetak Patel is a computer scientist and entrepreneur, best known for his work on developing novel sensing solutions and ubiquitous computing. He joined the University of Washington in 2008 as an assistant professor in both Computer Science & Engineering and Electrical Engineering. In 2011, he was named a MacArthur Fellow, at the age of 29. His technology start-up company on energy sensing, Zensi, was acquired by Belkin International, Inc. in 2010.

Enrique Cerna:
Shwetak Patel. Welcome to Conversations.

Shwetak Patel:
Thanks for having me.

Enrique:
And congratulations on your honor. That's very incredible, very incredible.

Shwetak:
Yeah, it's pretty exciting. It still hasn't really sunk in it, been a few months, still hasn't sunk in yet. Slowly.

Enrique:
This whole process of getting this phone call and getting this award, tell me about it. Because it's actually kind of entertaining the way it happened.

Shwetak:
Yeah.

Enrique:
When did they call?

Shwetak:
So this was in September. It was, it was completely out of the blue, I mean usually how they talk about these MacArthur award is literally out of the blue, you just get this phone call. And that's what happened. It was that morning, it was 8:00 or 9:00 a.m., I was still at home, I was in my office at home. And my wife was also in the office with me. And I was exciting a phone call from somebody else actually, so the area code looked like the person that was supposed to be calling me. And I just answered it. And the first thing they say is this is so and so from the MacArthur foundation, are you alone? And that's kind of when I knew what was going on. Because I heard about the foundation award and all the stories. So at that point, I kind of had a little bit of a clue, like why would they be calling me and asking me if I'm alone? I run upstairs to be alone because my wife's downstairs. And then he tells me that I've won the MacArthur foundation fellowship. And then on the floor, right before there, he actually asked me to sit down. I want you to sit down because I have some news to tell you. I wasn't sitting down, I was basically, tell me, tell me, tell me. And it's basically me on the floor. That's why they tell you to sit down. Apparently, professors aren't very good listeners.

Enrique:
Did he kind of drag it out?

Shwetak:
A little bit, a little bit. He basically started with saying, do you know what the MacArthur foundation is? Do you know what we do? But the anticipation was building, I knew what he was going to say. And then finally, he tells me that I won the award.

Enrique:
And was he asking you questions, did he set you up in any way about this?

Shwetak:
For me, he didn't. But I know of others, I know of another computer scientist, his story was kind of interesting. It was a while back. A couple years ago. And the story that they used for him was they call him, call him up and say, we're from the MacArthur foundation, do you have any ideas on who would be a good nominee for the foundation award? And he's like, I don't really know, but let me think of some names. And he starts thinking of names. And they're like think harder. More names. Think even harder. He keeps going on and on, and then finally, they said, it's you. So they didn't use that one on me, but it was still a shocker for me.

Enrique:
When they finally tell you, I mean obviously, you're thrilled. Do you really grasp what it means and how it all came about?

Shwetak:
It was a bit of, like I said, it was a shocker. And it took me a while for it to sink in a little bit. You know, one of the things that they said was you're going to be in shock for a little bit and it's going to be a life changing experience for you. What does that mean, life changing? It is a very prestigious award and it gives you a lot of intellectual freedom to do a lot of research outside of academia and the research that we're doing. But it didn't sink in until later, where, wow, this is huge. And it's just a validation of the work that I've been doing. At the end of the day, the work I do is things that I have fun with. That's what I tell my graduate students. We want to do research in an area that we find personally motivating and that we have fun with. And it was fun to reflect on, wow, the stuff that I have fun with is starting to pay off and people are starting to recognize it. And that was what was really just great about the whole experience.

Enrique:
Now, you and your wife had actually been joking a little bit about this before.

Shwetak:
Yeah.

Enrique:
Tell me about that.

Shwetak:
So a lot of us know what the MacArthur foundation fellowship is, we see it every year, and it's a huge honor.

Enrique:
University of Washington has had a number of people.

Shwetak:
Yeah, we've had a decent number of them. But it's a huge honor, but it's something I would never expect to receive. That's my dream, in my wildest dreams, right? It was funny because a week before that phone call, my wife and I were flying back from D.C., from a trip, and we had a research project that we worked on that got into the New York Times, and she said, wow, this is really cool, you're getting some press on this new research project that you're doing, you just need to get the MacArthur fellowship, you get a lot of press, and I thought, I'll never get one of those. And lo and behold, a week later, I get this phone call. We had no clue at all.

Enrique:
Now, your wife is in computer science as well?

Shwetak:
Exactly. Both of us got our Ph.D.s from Georgia tech in computer science. She's also at the university of Washington in the computer design department.

Enrique:
You talk about a life changing experience. Because along with this comes $500,000?

Shwetak:
Yeah.

Enrique:
How are you going to use that?

Shwetak:
It was interesting when they told me in September, the first check doesn't come in until the first of the year, so it gives you a significant amount of time to try on figure out what we want to do with it. One of the interesting things about this award is the phone call is the first and last phone call you'll ever get from them. What they basically say is here's $500,000 for your creativity, this is the last and only phone call you will ever get. You will never hear back from us. You'll get a check every quarter and that's it. There's no reporting, we'll never talk to you ever again. Because we don't want to pressure you to do anything that somebody may want you to do, right? It's basically up to you. And so I've been thinking of a lot of different things. Being a computer scientist, fundraising, it's been hard recently just because a lot of the economic challenges, and funding is down. But in general, computer scientist can find ways to fund their research. It's an area where it's not too challenging. We can find the funding. And it's also an area where you can always find capital and funding to do a startup. So what I'm interesting to work on is things that are hard to find the funding. Nonprofit organizations, things that are just completely off the wall, things that are maybe 20, 30 years out projects. That's what I'm trying to think about right now. Haven't really grasped what that is. But a lot of it is related to electric cars that are really different from what we're envisioning now, low energy solutions that are really low cost, that you can build for a dollar or two, where you can impact low income families, where they're really interested in trying to save money in terms of energy consumption. So being aggressive about a lot of these things.

Enrique:
So it gives you a flexibility?

Shwetak:
Yeah. Complete flexibility. The first thing I'm doing now is building a research lab in my garage. And that's huge.

Enrique:
As you mentioned, the last call you'll ever hear from them, really, you could use that money, however, you wanted to?

Shwetak:
That's right. That's right.

Enrique:
Well, I want to step back to the life changing experience thing again. Because along with that comes people like me who want to interview you, and life changes in that respect too. Because I imagine you get a lot of press calls.

Shwetak:
Yeah.

Enrique:
Having to kind of really come up with a schedule about how you handle that.

Shwetak:
That's right.

Enrique:
How has that been?

Shwetak:
It's been overwhelmed, exciting at the same time. This is the first time in my life I've had press hours. I've always had office hours for my students. And this is the first time I've had press hours, for the press to talk to me. And I love talking about it. In a few months, I'm going to start talking about some high school and middle school students, just about the experience itself, what did I do when I was young that set me up for this. And it wasn't really that different from what you could do, right? But it's been interesting. I get press inquiries all the time, it's really overwhelming, but the university has been great at helping me get through it. One of the things that the foundation told me was going to be life changing, and I didn't realize that it was the perceived amount of credibility that I'd get. I'm the same person four months ago, six months ago that I am now, right? But after the whole foundation fellowship, I had a personal one on one meeting with the secretary of energy on some of the research that we're doing. We had a number of other high profile visitors to the university, to the lab. I've been contacted, just anybody you can imagine. I'm the same person.

Enrique:
You grew up in Alabama.

Shwetak:
Yep, yep.

Enrique:
And your parents had come from India and settled in Alabama?

Shwetak:
That's right.

Enrique:
Where did the interest come for you in computing and using computers and how you could do things?

Shwetak:
Yes. I grew up in Alabama. And so I was really a tinkerer when I was little. A lot of kids are tinkerer, like working on little hobby projects. So if somebody were to guess or put a finger on what I was doing, nobody could ever guess that, because I did a lot of little mechanical engineering type stuff, electrical, computer science. So I liked building things. I had a dream of being an inventor, but I had no clue what it was. This nebulous thing about being an inventor, what is that really? And my parents were really supportive in that regard. They were frustrated at times, why did you take apart that thing we just bought you? I was curious.
[LAUGHTER]
So that was one of the things that really led to this career in research. But it wasn't until high school where I started to realize, what do I want to do? I could have been a mechanical engineer, lawyer, doctor, or whatever, but it was in high school that I realized that computing can really have an impact in society. So I started to do some internships with high school students. So I was fortunate to go to a high school, it was a public high school, but it was an international baccalaureate program, and incidentally, it was the number 1 high school in the country for many years by news week.

Enrique:
What was it called?

Shwetak:
Jefferson baccalaureate high school. Surprising coming from the state of Alabama, but it was a public high school. And one of the things we did is every Wednesday for juniors and seniors, you had to do an internship. We didn't go to class, you had to go and do research projects. So that was a chance to branch out and apply some of the work from school into real world problems. So that's when I started to do computer science internships over the summer, and I started to realize, wow, the next 10 to 15 years, computing is going to have a huge impact into all of these other things I'm interested in, you know, health. At the time, I wasn't really thinking about energy but the car industry is really moving into a lot of technology that's using computer science. So if I really want to have an impact in a lot of these spaces, I think computer science is the space to be in. So that's when I started to be in that area. And then I went off to college, got my undergrad at Georgia tech, and then did my Ph.D. there as well.

Enrique:
Did I hear that you did your first computer program at a very young age?

Shwetak:
Yeah, yeah.

Enrique:
Six?

Shwetak:
Yeah. I had to actually ask my parents when that was. They were like, yeah, it was this old TI 99a computer, really old computer. And it was, I just wrote a little car racing game. And it had a starting point, there was a piece of code that I could start from at least, but it was a little racing game I made. And from that point on, I just learned it myself.

Enrique:
Your parents, they came from India, they've been entrepreneurs but in the hotel business you said to me.

Shwetak:
Yeah.

Enrique:
I guess what did they give you and encourage you to seek your dreams?

Shwetak:
Yeah. When they moved to the U.S. from India, they did everything from scratch, right, they worked in carbon factories all the way to finally starting their own business. I think perseverance was one thing. You're always going to run into challenges, but those challenges are there to make you a better person, right? So I think that was really great. And they were extremely supportive and open. They didn't make any of us go into the hotel business, or become lawyers, or doctors, or whatever. They allowed us to explore whatever we wanted to explore and were very supportive in that regard. So I have a younger brother and sister, and all of us are doing very different things. My brother is getting his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Berkeley. So he actually got into computer science a little bit but decided to do something different and is going to be a chemical engineer. And my sister is getting an M.D. So she is going to end up becoming the doctor.

Enrique:
Wow. Doing some research about you and one of the articles I found that tells research broadly in the areas of ubiquitous computing and human compute interaction technology. Explain that for me in layman's terms.

Shwetak:
Luckily, it is pretty easy to explain because the work that I do actually really touches people directly. So human computer interaction is basically an idea of applying computer science to a lot of interesting and important applications. So also working out a lot of the challenges in terms of interfaces that people have to the computer them selves. Computers are very valuable and very powerful tools, but it's not really going to be useful until somebody can actually take advantage of its capabilities. So the user interfaces that you interact with, the mouse, the keyboard, a lot of those are part of human interaction. So what is that interface between the person and the computer itself. What are some of the research questions and how do you make that more effective, how do you make that seamless integration between the person and the computer? So that's one of the research areas I'm in.

Enrique:
And a lot of your work is actually kind of make things simpler for people?

Shwetak:
That's right, yeah.

Enrique:
And affordable. Explain that.

Shwetak:
So one of the challenges with computing technology is you have a variety of different people with different levels of expertise. So you can't expect everybody to be an expert at this. So you have to make it easy that they can really easily install it, use it, and learn from it, and then grow with the computer, right, as they become more proficient at it, then they should be able to adapt to it as well. So one of the things I've been focusing on, on the research side, whenever we work on a research project, even though it might be 10, 15 years out, on a research project, it's really forward looking, but we have to look at what can happen soon. If it's not going to be available 10 years from now, you can't really study these questions in terms of how people will use it or if it's going to be impactful. We try to make it easy to use so we can deploy it quickly and people can start to grasp it early. And the adoption gets lower as well.

Enrique:
You brought some show and tell?

Shwetak:
Yeah, I did.

Enrique:
What do you got?

Shwetak:
One of the areas we're working on is electricity and water in the home. So how do you get the consumer to get a better understanding of their energy consumption? What do you get in terms of feedback? You got that little meter outside, but you don't understand what it is, it's pretty esoteric, right? You get a bill every month? That tells you how much you owe, right? It's like me giving you a credit card receipt and saying, here's how much you owe, I'm not going to give you a list of everything you've purchased. And that's the experience we've had in the last 50 years in energy and water. So what I'm working on is consumers can easily install it and it will give you a breakdown of your energy and water usage.

Enrique:
And can you track it?

Shwetak:
And it will tell you what you can do to reduce your consumption. Think of getting a credit card or a telephone bill like a document for your electricity and water. Right now, it's one number and makes no sense.

Enrique:
Something to break it down.

Shwetak:
Exactly. So here's an example of our water monitoring technology. Water is more challenging. It's often called is a silent killer, it's not a renewable resource, there are many states that have almost run out of water. And we have no visibility about where we use water. So this is a device that doesn't require a plumber or professional to install it. It's a sensor that screws onto is a hose bid. So you put this on a hose to water your lawn or flowers, and you literally just screw it on, and you just need one of these. From this one location that a consumer can install, it gives you a breakdown of the entire water you're consuming, but also where that water is going.

Enrique:
Does this connect maybe wirelessly to your computer?

Shwetak:
That's the. This is a device, and then this wirelessly transmits the data to the computer, and then it uses an algorithm to break it down. You can get it on the website, or get a bill at the end of the month that gives you this breakdown. There are many ways to see it because it's just a website. So here's an example of what that could look like. Get to it load.

Enrique:
Fire it up there just for a second.

Shwetak:
That's right.

Enrique:
So the idea here is really to make things friendly, consumer friendly, understandable?

Shwetak:
Exactly, and action too.

Enrique:
So that you can control it. Because I think many people are so intimidated, I know I am. Hold this up so the camera can see it.

Shwetak:
This is just one example. So this is data from my house. And so this is how much I've consumed. This is a dollar. So people can understand how much money you've consumed thus far this month, this is how much water, my water bill is this far. And here's how much water I've consumed in gallons. So that might be useful. But what's more interesting is actually a couple of pieces of information down here. Here, it tells me how much water I'm consuming at this moment. It's zero, which is good, because my wife's at the university, and I'm here, it better not be consumed unless the cats are flushing the toilet or something. At any instant, I can tell how much water is being consumed, which is cool, because if I'm taking a shower, if I install a low flow shower head, it will tell me if this is lower than before. And this is interesting as well. This is today's consumption in gallons. And then compare it to the last several days. So if I want to be good about being efficient, I can say, I want to be better than the last seven days, and now I have some feedback on that.

Enrique:
And this is where you break it down into the actual use, the showers, the toilets.

Shwetak:
This morning, we ran the dish washer, and this is our morning routine, a bunch of showers were happening in the house, and then the tub was being run a little bit to heat up the shower, because we have a separate shower and tub, we run the tub a little bit to heat up the shower because it's faster to heat it up. A few gallons went there. The toilet was flushed a few times. So now, it gives us an idea where our water is being consumed. And in the summer, we'll get a new bar, which is basically the irrigation system in the house, the sprinkler system.

Enrique:
Really, in many ways, this could be a thing that could really help people with this, because particularly during the wintertime, if you're going to run your heating, you can keep better track of it.

Shwetak:
That's right, that's right. And sometimes we have what's called cued pricing. So in the summer, where it gets more expensive. And this other parts of the country, when water gets to a certain point, you have another tier. Now you have an idea when you're about to hit the tier. Here's an example of electricity. It's a similar technology. I didn't bring that with me, but that device plugs into just one electrical outlet and it uses machine learning for electrical consumption. A similar idea, how much I owe so far, how much energy I've consumed. And right now, there's energy consumed because there's probably the refrigerator running, some people call that vampire power. It's the same breakdown. But here's the breakdown of the various big consumers in my house. And so this tells me what it is. The light tells me if it's on or off. So when I leave for the day, I can say, did I turn off most of those devices? It tells me you left a light on, do you want to turn it off, it tells me this. The things that are still running is the cable box, which you can't really turn off, refrigerator, and a bunch of other devices, like the router and stuff like that. But this number here tells me the percentage for my bill. Interestingly, if you look at this, the cable box is 16% of my energy bill. It's always running, we have a DVR, there are two of them, and you never turn it off. Whereas, in an instant, the big consumers are things like the oven or the dryer, but if you look at my oven and the dryer, it's negligible because it's not run that often, right.

Enrique:
How do you see making that software and all of this available for people, particularly low income folks as well? Because if you're upper or middle class, you can easily get that, and your kids can help you figure that out. But if you're not in that... Is that something you want to do?

Shwetak:
Yeah, that's one of the things I'm interested in. Some of this technology, we're working really closely with the department of energy and the EPA who are willing to subsidize this, through the utilities and making it available. It doesn't just help the consumer. The stakeholder is not just the person in their home or apartment. That's truly everybody else. It's the appliance manufacturers who can give them better insights, what can we do about building more efficient appliances or devices? It's planning. Do we need that new power plant or do we need to upgrade the water system? There's many stakeholders that can benefit from this. But I think low income families is challenging, because the $5 or $10 you can save per month on water, and another $5 or $10 on electricity is huge. So one of the things we've been doing on the research side is because there's so few components needed for this technology, we can start to push this price down. And the thing that I've been really interested in is it doesn't have to be as accurate as I've just showed you, and it doesn't have to give you information down to every appliance. Let's give people some feedback, that might be still good enough and really get the costs down. But because we have been focusing on minimal instrumentation and minimal technology installing it in the house, I think we have some hope of getting it really cheap.

Enrique:
What else do you see? What is the vision that you have for the future?

Shwetak:
So one of the things you mentioned is I'm in the area of ubiquitous computing? So what is that? It's this motion that computing is going to be everywhere, it's not going to be this desktop or laptop, in fact, it's already happening. The modern smartphone is basically the computer of five years ago. We'll have computers everywhere, cars, in our phones, they're everywhere. So how do you make it easy for people to interact with this computing technology kind of in the background, right? You don't have a formal interface anymore, you have to have this thing which is processing things in the background and giving you the relevant information as needed. And so I think energy is one area that we can have an impact in computer science. The other area that I'm really focusing on lot on is health and wellness. Health in particular, where being able to build sensing technology for the home environment, we can give you some insights on are there certain conditions that may be arising, or are there things that the home can predict about you that can be really valuable for a care giver to know, especially for a lot of the elder care work that we're doing. Building simple, easy to deploy sensors to give either families peace of mind about a loved one or an elder individual, or is it just ways to, you know, get information about a person's direct health, physiological changes. Because the health community is already being taxed enough in terms of the fact that there's not enough facilities to have people go through, but now, if you can bring some of this technology into the home, it can really increase the quality of care. Right now, we have no way of getting continuous data about our health, and I think that's really going to revolution it.

Enrique:
Unless you go to the doctor all the time.

Shwetak:
And that's impossible. So one example of technology we've been working on is something really simple for the mobile phone. What would it mean to have technology from a phone that can actually monitor a lot of different conditions of the human body that can potentially feed this information in real time to the doctor and give you some early warning signs. One example is building a piece of software on the phone for individuals that have chronic asthma, COPD, or cystic fibrosis, which is a pulmonary ailment. One of the things they use is a Spirometer, and it measures the lung function and capabilities of the lungs, how much air you can expel, how much lung capacity that you have, but it's a fairly costly device that you have to use at the hospital. But you don't want to carry this device around all the time. So we have a software, where you blew into the phone, and it gives you some of these measures. So with a software application, individuals with COPD or chronic asthma can continuously monitor this, especially for kids with chronic asthma. You can make this into a little game, where they're playing this game, and at the same time, you're kind of sneaking in the sensing. Because the stigma of having this device could be pretty challenging for them, but if you're playing this game or you have a cell phone, it can really change the way that we collect that data.

Enrique:
Fascinating. And now, I truly understand why you were awarded the MacArthur genius grant. Because this is really going to be life changing for so many people. Thank you for your time. Best of luck with your continued work.

Shwetak:
Thank you.

Enrique:
And we're just going to keep our eye on you.

Shwetak:
Thank you.

Enrique:
Shwetak Patel. Thank you.

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