Intelligent systems for a sustainable future

18 November 2015

Dr Sid Chi-Kin Chau (Croucher Scholarship 2003, Croucher Fellowship 2007) is an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Masdar Institute, Abu Dhabi. 

The Masdar Institute, created in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the only graduate level research-oriented university in the world that focuses specifically on alternative energy and sustainable technologies.

The need to find alternative, less polluting sources of energy, and sustainable technologies is, as Chau remarks, a twofold issue: firstly, fossil fuels will eventually run out; and secondly, our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is polluting the planet.

As a computer scientist, Chau endeavours to find solutions to the problem by adding intelligence into the equation. He proposes the optimisation of energy usage by matching demand and by reducing the wasteful use of resources. “Sustainable Networks”, Chau’s research group at the Masdar Institute, aims to find ways to balance energy supplies and demands, allocate energy efficiently, and build smart systems that optimise energy consumption.

One smart system which has already been tested in Abu Dhabi is ‘smart building’ to reduce energy consumption. Chau’s team installed smart sensors and management systems in government buildings to control air conditioning intelligently; taking into consideration occupants and their activity levels. This is an application which will likely appeal to corporations looking to cut energy bills across the world. The next step would be the creation of smart grids, which, using computer algorithms, would allocate and manage power to reduce waste, resulting in benefits on a much larger scale. However, this would require new infrastructure which does not yet exist.

The changing nature of personal vehicle ownership is another area of Sustainable Networks’ research. Chau believes that in the future, fewer people will own private vehicles. This is due to the fact that vehicles need constant upgrading and therefore private vehicle ownership is becoming financially nonviable and inconvenient for the average person. Alternatively, by sharing a lease, it may be easier and more cost effective to upgrade more often. However, the mechanisms for sharing need to be well designed in order for large scale adoption. Taking the evolution of personal vehicles further, Chau’s research group is exploring the possibilities of autonomous (self driving) vehicles. Specifically, working out how to intelligently coordinate these vehicles so that they can communicate with each other. Again, as with the creation of a smart grid, the creation of infrastructure to support the system would be necessary.

Chau believes that the main challenge to achieving widespread use of innovative smart solutions is in getting people to adapt to new technologies. Whether due to cultural reasons, poor marketing or lack of a good business model, the general population is often slow to adapt. The key to success is in finding a balance between being user friendly, cheap enough to replace existing infrastructure, and profitability in the long run. While companies such as Nest have succeeded in breaking into the market of energy conscious home owners, the implementation of large scale smart systems, such as smart grids which have the potential to optimise energy consumption on a much larger scale are something to look forward to.

Chau completed his Bachelor of Engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and his PhD from the University of Cambridge. He has previously been a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a senior research fellow at A*STAR in Singapore, a Croucher fellow at University College London, and a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Cambridge. He has conducted research work at various international institutes, such as IBM Watson Research Center (Hawthorne, US), BBN Technologies (Boston, US), University of Massachusetts (Amherst, US), the Institute of Theoretical Computer Science and Communications (at the Chinese University of Hong Kong), and Chinese Academy of Sciences (Shanghai, China).

To view Sid Chi-Kin Chau’s personal Croucher profile, please click here