Shwetak Patel has made a habit of pushing the ordinary stuff around us to do things far beyond the original intent — using the standard wiring inside a home as antennae for sensors, for example, and turning a smartphone into a medical device capable of diagnosing asthma, anemia and jaundice.
Patel, a 37-year-old serial entrepreneur, University of Washington professor, computer scientist, and electrical engineer, has also made a habit of building startups that get snapped up by corporate giants, such as Google, Belkin and Sears.
And he’s apparently making a new habit of receiving unexpected phone calls awarding him prestigious scientific prizes.
ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, this morning announced Patel as the recipient of the 2018 ACM Prize in Computing, which “recognizes an early to mid-career fundamental innovative contribution in computing that, through its depth, impact and broad implications, exemplifies the greatest achievements in the discipline.”
Patel said the recent congratulatory call from ACM reminded him of the one in 2011 from the MacArthur Foundation informing him that he won a MacArthur Genius prize — in that he was completely shocked to receive it.
“I never thought I’d get one of these things,” Patel said, going out of his way to credit his graduate students for their roles in the work for which he’s being recognized. Patel is a professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.
ACM, which separately oversees the Turing Award, known as the “Nobel Prize of computing,” says it’s recognizing Patel with the ACM Prize in Computing “for contributions to creative and practical sensing systems for sustainability and health.” The prize comes with a $250,000 financial award.
“Despite the fact that he is only 37, Shwetak Patel has had significant impact on the field of ubiquitous computing for nearly two decades,” said ACM President Cherri M. Pancake in a statement. “His work has ushered in some really exciting possibilities in the areas of sustainability and health. The widespread adoption of systems where individuals can monitor their health with smart phones could revolutionize healthcare — especially in the developing world. Shwetak Patel certainly exemplifies the ACM Prize’s goal of recognizing work with ‘fundamental impact and broad implications.’”
ACM added in a statement, “Until Patel’s work, most systems for monitoring energy and health required expensive and cumbersome specialized devices, precluding practical widespread adoption. Patel and his students found highly creative ways to leverage existing infrastructure to make affordable and accurate monitoring a practical reality. Patel quickly turned his team’s research contributions into real-world deployments, founding companies to commercialize their work.”
Most recently, his health monitoring startup Senosis was acquired in 2017 by Google (and specifically by Google’s smart-home division, Nest, according to internal university documents obtained by GeekWire through a public records request.) Patel, who hasn’t commented previously on the acquisition, said this week that he’s working at Google following the acquisition, under former Geisinger Health CEO David Feinberg, who was named Google’s vice president of health last year.
“I’m pretty excited to be working within Google under Dave Feinberg’s leadership, to be able to have an impact in health care,” Patel said. “Unfortunately, that’s all I can say for now, but there will be things in the future that become more obvious what’s going on.”
Patel is splitting his time between Google and the University of Washington, and he’s perpetually on the hunt for something he can repurpose into his next big idea. Speaking via phone with GeekWire about the ACM Prize this week, he gave a few hints about where he might focus next.
“As I walk around, I’m like, ‘Huh, that’s a sensor on that bridge. You know what? I can probably detect how many cars are going by without even having to put a motion detector on it. Or embedding technology into a city to be able to build resiliency, where we can start to identify, ‘Oh, this building might have some structural issues.’ ”
He rattled off several more ideas, saying he’s also interested in exploring new ways of using common wireless signals.
“I’ve been looking at city-level stuff,” he said. “It’s been interesting as a thought process for me. You’ve got the home, you’ve got the phone — what else is left?”
And the world of philanthropy might want to brace itself for Patel’s unique brand of thinking. Asked how he plans to use the $250,000 ACM Prize money, Patel said he has been working on the side on some “interesting philanthropic-type things,” and other ways to give back.