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Shwetak Patel, a 29-year-old University of Washington assistant professor who has figured out novel ways of using home electrical systems, has been named a 2011 MacArthur Fellow. The prestigious prize, commonly known as the MacArthur Genius Award, comes with $500,000 — no strings attached.

He’s one of 22 MacArthur Fellows for 2011, announced Monday night by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Shwetak Patel on the GeekWire radio show in July.

So secretive are the nominations and judging that recipients don’t even know they’re up for the award until they receive the congratulatory phone call.

“MacArthur Fellowships come without stipulations or reporting requirements and offer Fellows unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create, and explore,” the foundation says in its news release. “The unusual level of independence afforded to Fellows underscores the spirit of freedom intrinsic to creative endeavors.”

In other words, if you’re going to win a half-million-dollar prize, this is clearly the one to win.

Patel works in the UW Departments of Computer Science & Engineering and Electrical Engineering. His inventions include a device that uses electrical noise on home electrical systems to monitor the energy usage of specific appliances and electronics.

Zensi, the company founded on that technology, was acquired last year by computer peripheral company Belkin from Patel and his colleagues from Duke and Georgia Tech. Belkin conducted a large-scale pilot of the technology this summer in Chicago, in advance of a planned product release.

He was traveling tonight and unavailable, but he spoke extensively about his work during an appearance on the GeekWire radio show in July.

“The concept is not very intuitive initially,” he acknowledged when discussing the Zensi technology. “We’re actually using the electrical noise that’s emanating from all these appliances that you purchase and install in your home as our signal. Often people try to reduce or remove this signal. We’re actually harnessing this signal and using it for our purposes.”

More recently, Patel has developed a way of using electrical wiring as an antenna to receive signals from a variety of low-powered sensors around the home, to monitor conditions such as air quality.

Patel was also named a Microsoft Research Faculty fellow earlier this year, which came with a no-strings-attached award of $200,000 for his UW lab. During our July interview, he talked about his plans.

“Because it’s no strings attached, I can start to do some really high risk but high reward projects,” he said, citing the example of using a mobile phone as a sensor for medical monitoring, such as using the phone’s microphone to analyze a patient’s cough.

Those plans could now be supercharged with the money from the MacArthur fellowship.

Rest assured that Patel won’t waste the $500,000 MacArthur grant. When we joked in July that he should just take the Microsoft Research money and go to Tahiti instead, he laughed and said he’d only be tempted if there were some interesting research there.

Also see this MacArthur Foundation article for more on Patel’s work.

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