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Professor Wants To Put Your Toaster On The Internet

September 24, 2005
University Of Arizona
The past 100 years has been The Age of Electricity, says Professor Fei-Yue Wang. During that time, our homes have become increasingly complex and home appliances now have sophisticated internal microprocessors and CPUs. This includes VCRs, TVs, DVD players, telephones, microwaves, dishwashers, CD players and many other devices. As we enter the Age of the Internet, it's time to rethink how we control our homes and appliances, says Wang, a professor Systems and Industrial Engineering at The University of Arizona.

Professor Fei-Yue Wang explains how household appliances can be controlled by “smart control agents.”
Credit: Image courtesy of University Of Arizona

The past 100 years has been The Age of Electricity, says ProfessorFei-Yue Wang. During that time, our homes have become increasinglycomplex and home appliances now have sophisticated internalmicroprocessors and CPUs. This includes VCRs, TVs, DVD players,telephones, microwaves, dishwashers, CD players and many other devices.

As we enter the Age of the Internet, it's time to rethink how wecontrol our homes and appliances, says Wang, a professor Systems andIndustrial Engineering at The University of Arizona.

"We now have high-end appliances that have powerful computers andare high priced," he said. "Upgrading is costly. But now that we areliving in a connected world, we can have a connected lifestyle and muchcheaper, more energy-efficient devices."

Reconfigurable "Dumb" Appliances

Wang's idea is to connect inexpensive, reconfigurable, "dumb"appliances to a central operation center that provides “smart controlagents” (autonomous software algorithms). Each appliance has justenough memory space and processing power to host one or two controlagents for specific functions.

Take a VCR, for instance. If you want it to record, it will send arequest to the central computer asking for the control agent that doesthe recording at the speed you specify. When it's done recording, theVCR deletes the control agent for recording and asks for a controlagent that will rewind and play the tape.

By parsing the functions, the VCR needs much less computing powerand can be upgraded with software. The only time you need to buy a newone is when there is a major hardware upgrade and the new VCR will beless expensive because it won't contain a huge amount of computingmuscle.

Wang’s project was initiated in 1999 through an internationalresearch agreement between the University of Arizona, Chinese Academyof Sciences (CAS), and Kelon Electronics Holding Group, which is basedin Hong Kong. The project was funded with more than $10 million fromKelon and $500,000 from CAS through China’s Overseas Outstanding TalentProject. UA’s portion of the grant was $750,000 through the Sino-USKelon Joint R&D Center for Intelligent Control Systems, Wang wasthe general director of the center. During its five-year operation, thecenter graduated more than 20 Ph.D. and 30 MS students at both UA andCAS.

Two Central Controllers

In a connected world and for a connect lifestyle, Wang envisions twocentral controllers — one in the house and another at the appliancecompany headquarters.

"The company headquarters will have a super operation center thatwill learn the habits from each individual house by various data miningtechniques," he said. "Like when you get up, when you come home, howyou cook, when you turn on the lights, and how you use each appliance.So you will have an individualized control system just for your house.It will know, for instance, what times of day you use your refrigeratorand how often you open the door and how long you leave it open. Thatwill help in managing the energy efficiency. This will increaseperformance and lower the cost."

"Now appliances are made with one-size-fits-all control algorithms,"he added. "This is not right. It's inefficient. You use only some ofthe functions and those functions are designed for the average user,not for you."

Wang envisions control agents that are specifically configured foryour needs. The company that produced the appliance or a third-partycompany could take the data from your household, design custom controlagents and retrain your appliances via the Internet while you sleep.

Three Levels of Control Agent

There would be three levels of control agent, Wang says. A defaultagent at the device level would have very basic functions and wouldcontrol the appliance when the network is down. A second agent wouldoperate on the local network at the household level, and a third wouldbe the latest custom-designed agent from the manufacturer, featuringsophisticated learning and optimization capabilities. The customizedagent would be periodically downloaded to become the new local networkagent.

Getting manufacturers involved would be easy, Wang said. Thecomputers they would need to do this would be fairly inexpensive and,in return, the manufacturers would get valuable data from individualusers.

"Now, appliance makers just sell their devices to Walmart, forinstance, and they get lost," Wang said. "This would help them developmuch more sophisticated, highly targeted market strategies because theycould track the units and find out how they're being used."

He recognizes that this could raise concerns about privacy. Butindividual privacy could be protected by encrypting the data, Wangsaid. The manufacturer wouldn't know the customer's identity or exactlywhere they live, only a general area of the city, for instance.

System Has Five Aspects

Wang says there are five aspects to the system, which he has been working on for about ten years:

1. ABC — Agent Based Control instead of a single control algorithm within the device.
2. LSRC — Local Simple, Remote Complex. That is, the appliances aresimple and the complexity is in the remote controllers and agents.
3. ASOS — Application Specific Operating Systems. The agent is designedfor the specific use. Most owners use only about 40 percent of anappliance's capabilities. Wang would like to see this raised to 70 or80 percent.
4. RCPD — Remote Configurable and Programmable Devices. These would bethe "dumb" appliances without networking and “smart” appliances whenconnected to the network.
5. OSGi — Open Service Gateway Initiative. A standardized specificationfor net appliance control that makes all appliance software andhardware compatible.

Extending the Idea to Traffic ControlWang also is expanding his ideas about the Age of the Internet control to traffic control systems and automobiles.

He envisions traffic lights that would gather data about trafficvolume and movements each day. The lights would then be reconfiguredfrom a central controller each night. Smart vehicles would becustomized specifically for each driver as the computer learned moreabout the driver's habits and how the vehicle is used.

Wang is the president elect of the Intelligent TransportationSystems Society of IEEE (Institute of Electrical & ElectronicsEngineers). The society sponsored an intelligent vehicle conferencethis May in Las Vegas and sponsored an intelligent transportationconference in Vienna this month.

"I'm trying to put this idea to the whole professional community,"Wang said. "I'm hoping others will follow this idea of remoteintelligence instead of designing complex, dedicated intersectioncontrollers at each intersection, for instance."

Wang admits that he doesn't know exactly how these appliance,traffic control and automotive systems will evolve or ultimately beused.

"Actually, I don't know all the potential yet for any of thesesystems," Wang noted. "It's like the Internet and personal computer.When they were first being developed, people didn't realize everythingthey would do or where they would go. In fact, you don't need to know.This is an opportunity for third parties to develop ideas."

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University Of Arizona. (2005, September 24). Professor Wants To Put Your Toaster On The Internet. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 23, 2017 from
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