TECH
10/08/2013 01:04 pm ET | Updated Nov 24, 2013

Dina Katabi, MacArthur Genius, On Wi-Fi That Can See Through Walls

On Sept. 24, Damascus-born Dina Katabi was announced as a winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, one of the so-called genius grants, for her work on Wi-Fi. A professor at MIT, Katabi has developed technology to combat wireless interference, the way signals sometimes disrupt one another in crowded areas.

Explaining the phenomena to HuffPost Live, she remarked, "I'm sure you've had the experience of being in downtown New York and trying to transmit something over your cell phone or your iPad, and there are so many people around where you are that you can't get anything through."

But that's not Katabi's only accomplishment with wireless. A master manipulator of signal, she's working to make medical devices like pacemakers safer -- and recently used Wi-Fi signals to see through walls. The Huffington Post was privileged to interview Katabi this week after her spectacular (but sadly short) HuffPost Live interview on Sept. 26.

What interests you about wireless research?

Wireless is actually a very, very interesting topic when you get into it. It's one way to interact with the environment. You are connecting with someone else, there are no wires between them, you can go very long distance, you can connect with another person via radio waves ... This ability to interact without touching is so amazing.

You've been working on technology to combat Wi-Fi interference. When that technology is deployed, what do you think it will look like?

For technology that deals with interference and allows us to use the spectrum more efficiently, we are envisioning maybe like a new form of Wi-Fi devices, or new Wi-Fi access points.

And your very new innovation, your team is using Wi-Fi to see through walls. What use cases do you see for that in the future?

Imagine that there's an elderly person and she fell on the floor and she needs to call 911 and she doesn't have a phone within reach. She can make the gesture; the gesture could be interpreted through walls and invoke the computer to do something for her.

What are some of the most interesting applications that you've seen of wireless technology today, besides your own?

Nowadays you can take something called RFID -- and it's a sticker, it's really just a sticker -- and it has a small circuit in it, and you can put it on any device and you can then track this device. I can discover where I took my laptop and where I put it. You can discover my credit card, and if I lose my credit card, you can find it for me.

But the range of an RFID right now is quite short. Do you think there's an upper limit on the range you'll be able to get with RFID and similar wireless technology?

Right now, a 10-meter range is doable today, easily. I think going up to 20, 30 meters is very viable within the coming two years. And then you may not need to go much farther. It's very easy to make small and cheap devices, and then most infrastructure can support a large number of them.

Do you have any thoughts on the privacy implications of this technology?

All technology has privacy implications and comes with policy issues and privacy issues. The point is to always be ahead of the bad guys.

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