Article
Don’t look now, but your electrical outlets may one day soon start developing some smarts. <br><br>Smarts,
 that is, in terms of artificial intelligence through which an outlet 
box can “learn” to differentiate between a fuse-flipping arc event such 
as faulty wiring and a “nuisance trip” such as when a vacuum cleaner or 
hair dryer momentarily overloads a circuit.

Adding Smarts to Your Electrical Outlet

James R. Dukart
Don’t look now, but your electrical outlets may one day soon start developing some smarts.

Smarts, that is, in terms of artificial intelligence through which an outlet box can “learn” to differentiate between a fuse-flipping arc event such as faulty wiring and a “nuisance trip” such as when a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer momentarily overloads a circuit.

Researchers at MIT are working on “smart power outlets,” a hardware-software combination that can analyze electrical current usage and distinguish between benign arcs — harmless electrical spikes such as those caused by common household appliances — and dangerous arcs, such as sparking that results from faulty wiring and could lead to a fire.

The device can also be trained to identify what might be plugged into a particular outlet, such as a fan versus a desktop computer.

A smart outlet includes hardware that processes electrical current data in real-time along with software that analyzes the data via a neural network — a set of machine learning algorithms that are inspired by the workings of the human brain.

The machine-learning algorithm is programmed to determine whether a signal is harmful or not by comparing a captured signal to others that researchers previously used to train the system.

Joshua Siegel, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, says the smart power outlet is able to connect to other devices wirelessly, as part of the “internet of things” (IoT).

In testing, Siegel’s MIT team was able to differentiate between four different types of devices (e.g. fans vs. computers) with over 95% accuracy, and identify “good” from “bad” electrical signals at 99.95% accuracy.

Beyond electrical outlets, Siegel sees the project as proof of concept for “pervasive intelligence,” among everyday devices and appliances that are intelligent, self-diagnostic, and responsive to people’s needs.

“This is shifting intelligence to the edge, as opposed to on a server or a data center or a desktop computer,” Siegel says. “I think the larger goal is to have everything connected, all of the time, for a smarter, more interconnected world. That’s the vision I want to see.”

Even, it appears, to the level of your humble little electrical outlet.
Photo courtesy of Arlington Industries
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