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Artificial Intelligence (AI) Means More Than Just Neat Gadgets - It Could Mean a Greener Future for Everyone

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Despite a number of false dawns, artificial intelligence (AI) is finally beginning to deliver on some of its early promise. When created as an academic endeavor in the nineteen fifties, predictions of thinking machines with human level intelligence within the next twenty years were common. Unfortunately, it's taken a lot longer than that, and such human level intelligence is still some way off, if achievable at all.

However, the growth of computer power over the same period has meant that the devices and services that we use every day are now routinely tackling many of the early challenges of AI. Our cameras and smart phones locate faces in images and focus accordingly. Social networking websites recognize our friends in these same images and automatically tag them. Our cars can already park themselves and automatically brake when they recognize pedestrians stepping into the road, and prototype fully autonomous self-driving cars are clocking up miles on real roads. Meanwhile, closer to that original vision of human level intelligence, last year Watson, a supercomputer built by IBM, famously beat human players on the quiz show Jeopardy!, and is now being re-tasked to train medical doctors. Meanwhile Google's founder, Larry Page, has argued that the company will eventually become an artificial intelligence, and has recruited many of the world's top AI scientists to work toward this goal.

Despite this progress, one area where there has been very little deployment of AI technologies is in our homes. Like AI itself, the vision of a smart home, full of autonomous devices that learn what we want and automatically take care of household chores has a long history, and still seems to many like science fiction. Unlike our gadgets and cars, which tend to be replaced relatively frequently, our homes are updated only rarely, and smart home appliances, such as autonomous vacuum cleaners, are largely seen as novelties rather than necessities.

However, new concerns about ever rising energy costs, and the impact of carbon emissions from domestic energy use on climate change, are beginning to change this. Last year, Nest Labs, founded by the creator of the iPod, launched the Nest Learning Thermostat, which combines iPod-like cool design with smart algorithms that learn the householders' preferences, and automatically recognize when the home is unoccupied, adjusting the heating or cooling system appropriately.

At the University of Southampton, we're trying to make the same sort of analysis available to people who aren't yet willing or able to go out and spend money on new gadgets. The Electronics and Computer Science department where I work, one of the world's largest and most successful electronics and computer science departments, can uniquely tackle both the hardware and the AI challenges in this space. Our system, named MyJoulo, aims to reduce your heating bill by providing personalised advice on your home's energy consumption. It uses a small, simple to use, Joulo logger which measures the temperature at the thermostat every two minutes for a week. When this data is uploaded to the MyJoulo website, smart AI algorithms are used to build a mathematical model of how the home responds to heat and how the home's occupants are using the heating system. Using additional external temperature data from the internet, we can then calculate the energy savings that will be achieved by turning down the thermostat or changing timer settings, and can spot homes which leak heat most rapidly. By building a representative map of the UK building stock, the MyJoulo project will ultimately be able to identify particularly leaky homes, and prioritise interventions such as the installation of better insulation.

Such smart technologies applied within the home are likely to be essential if the UK is to reach its ambitious target of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. MyJoulo represents a first step along this path, potentially reducing the millions of Kilowatt hours of energy wasted per year, and saving households money at the same time.

To become part of the MyJoulo project, and to find out how to reduce your energy bill, order your own Joulo logger for free from www.myjoulo.com.