Hidden Gems Are Inside UW Computer Science & Engineering. Can They Be Mined?

7/14/11

Although an attentive observer can see a steady stream of news articles from UW Computer Science & Engineering, with more than 40 faculty members and 750 students, there is more going on than is reported. When I was given an opportunity to occupy an office inside the Paul G. Allen Center, I was excited to take a closer look.

One of the most visible gems in CSE is Oren Etzioni. Etzioni has been the technical wizard behind at least four commercial products or services. Most famously, he was involved with Farecast, a web service to help people to decide when to buy airplane tickets at the best price. Farecast was sold to Microsoft and now is a key part of Bing Travel. Etzioni was the technologist behind Go2Net, Netbot, and MetaCrawler, all cutting-edge web services that became commercial products. Now his latest project, Decide.com, just went live, a service for deciding the best time to purchase consumer electronics equipment. The core technology behind Farecast and Decide.com is his approach to indexing and analyzing very large collections of text documents, searching for information to help people make better decisions.

Shwetak Patel is another sparkling gem in CSE. Patel, who specializes in sensor technology, was in the news recently because his company Zensi was sold to Belkin, a maker of computer and consumer electronics products. Through Zensi, Patel commercialized signal processing techniques for measuring electricity, water, and natural gas usage within a house without having to instrument every appliance. One sensor per house is enough to identify what device is using electricity, when it is using it, and how much is being used. The same techniques with different sensors work for water and natural gas. Patel also made a Hollywood appearance by selling a system for detecting the illegal copying of movies by digital cameras in movie theaters, which he sold to the Motion Picture Association of America. Currently he is doing compelling work with networks of low-power sensors that can be easily and cheaply deployed for residential and commercial building monitoring. Patel’s sensors are hidden inside a wall or under a water heater to detect and alert a homeowner, or an insurance company, when a sensor detects water leaks, fire or carbon monoxide. These sensors will be able to save the lives of many homeowners, and save insurers hundreds of millions of dollars; water damage claims now surpass fire claims and natural disasters and are very expensive to settle.

The UW CSE computer security team recently won gleaming accolades at the national collegiate cyber defense competition in April, evidence of the world-class expertise in this area at the UW. The challenge for teams from colleges across the company was to take control of and run an IT system while defending it from attack by professional “hackers” over a three day contest, and the UW team won the competition. Yoshi Kohno, a UW gem focused on computer security, has made news recently for exposing security holes in equipment we use every day. Kohno’s work highlights the potential for hackers to gain control of automobile systems, pacemakers, or baby monitors. Kohno not only exposes security holes, but develops tools and techniques for secure computing.

During my short time in CSE, I have discovered … Next Page »

Jeremy Jaech is a serial technology entrepreneur who co-founded Visio and Aldus. Follow @

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