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MIT wants to use your microwaving habits to study your health

Researchers developed a system that wirelessly monitors your appliance usage.
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Woman cooking in the kitchen, using microwave
M_a_y_a via Getty Images

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have created a wireless system that monitors how people use the appliances in their homes. The team believes that with data about how and when users operate everything from microwaves to hair dryers and stoves, they could study health habits, track the wellbeing of elderly people, encourage less energy usage and even help insurance companies assess risks.

The system, called Sapple, uses a smart electricity meter and a wireless, wall-mounted device that emits and tracks radio signals to determine where a person is -- CSAIL used the same device to monitor COVID-19 patients remotely. Those sensors feed a machine learning model that determines where and when a particular appliance is being used.

It isn’t clear yet how this will translate into actionable health or behavioral data. MIT suggests one day it might help healthcare professionals understand elderly individuals’ ability to perform various activities of daily living and advise healthy habits.

“This system uses passive sensing data, and does not require people to change the way they live,” says MIT PhD student Chen-Yu Hsu, the lead author on a new paper about Sapple. “It has potential to improve things like energy saving and efficiency, give us a better understanding of the daily activities of seniors living alone, and provide insight into the behavioral analytics for smart environments.”

There are some obvious privacy concerns here, and the approach raises questions over how much we want to be monitored in our own homes. Do we really need sensors to tell us how often we use the microwave in order to improve our health or reduce our energy usage? But if we already have wearables to monitor seniors and sensors to track appliance usage, this may be the next step in a natural evolution.

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