World’s Largest Brain/Vision Hackathon Melds Minds and Machines at the 2016 IEEE SMC Brain-Machine Interface Workshop

Over 150 hackathon participants designed BMI prototypes for applications such as neurotechnology/Internet of Things integration, virtual/augmented reality games, and artificial intelligence data analysis

24 January 2017

Brain-Machine Interface.

For some, the phrase might evoke the more ominous tones of the movie The Matrix but, for others, visions of a brave new future that blurs the line between biology and technology. Those in the second group—including myself and other attendees at the 2016 IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics held 9-12 October—are turning those visions into reality.

The 2016 SMC BMI Workshop—whose theme was New Research Opportunities and Industrial Applications in BMI Systems—opened with a talk by IEEE President and CEO Barry L. Shoop, Disruptive Innovations as a Vehicle to Develop Critical Thinking, Creativity and Innovation Skills. Living up to its mission to move research out of the lab into the real world, the workshop provided a unique experience that interweaved research, technology, innovation, creativity, standards, tutorials, panel discussions, vendors, and a perfect setting for conversing with one’s peers (of which there were many, with over 400 SMC 2016 delegates attending one or more BMI Workshop activities).

The BMI Workshop also hosted the world’s largest Brain/Vision Hackathon on 8-9 October. Sponsored by IEEE SMC Society, IEEE Brain Initiative, and industry volunteers Vizzario/VST, Qusp, ABC Accelerator—with hardware and software contributions from manufacturers Brain Rhythm, Cognionics, Emotive, g.tec, InteraXon, NCU, Neuroelectrics, Neurosky, OpenBCI, Samsung, and Wearable Sensing—the Hackathon hosted some 187 researchers, graduate students, engineers, and entrepreneurs from around the world. Of these, 153 were grouped into 30 project-specific teams, of which 25 opted to give presentations.

The intrepid Hackathon contenders faced the challenge of designing and implementing—in no more than 30 hours—a functional BMI prototype in one of several areas, including neurotechnology/Internet of Things integration; closed-loop cognitive and virtual/augmented reality games; Brain-Machine Interface control of computational and robotic devices; cloud/sensor communications; and advanced artificial intelligence data analysis.

I’m proud to say that I was a member of the Neurofeedback Loop team, where I provided guidance on future applications, technical enhancements, and our presentation. True to the pre-workshop description that “interdisciplinary teams with a combination of BMI and non-BMI skills are often successful in building solutions and producing working prototypes,” our team comprised participants with backgrounds in neuroscience, biometrics, coding, data visualization, and audio/video. Together, we produced a multipurpose BMI system based on recorded neural reactions to various sensory stimuli that was designed to improve cognitive states and learning capabilities by reinforcing elevated cognitive activity,

Something amazing happened over these two energy- and pizza-packed who needs sleep? days: A remarkable array of working prototypes—games, neurofeedback systems, and other applications—were completed (with a few minor hiccups) and presented to the judges and the other teams. The judges—who reviewed each project based on its innovation, execution, marketability, and social impact—were not mere observers, but asked precise, insightful questions about each team’s presentation.

Then came the awards—certificates, hardware, and cash: US $5,000 in Vizzario/VSP Brain Hackathon Prizes; a $1,000 IEEE Brain Initiative Brain Hackathon Prize; a $1,000 IEEE SMC Society Brain Hackathon Prize; and a $1,000 Qusp Prize.

Our team won (ahem) the IEEE Brain Initiative Award.

Beyond all of the above—including, believe it or not, the awards—what really made the hackathon a unique and powerful experience was the excitement, focus, commitment, skills, camaraderie, and incredible creativity shown by all participants, organizers, and judges.

Paul Sajda, IEEE Brain Initiative chair, mirrored my experience precisely when he told me, "I was excited to see the enthusiasm and participation at the SMC BMI Workshop, particularly the Hackathon. This was a wonderful event and I’m glad the IEEE Brain Initiative was able to be a part of it." 

An unexpected pleasure was being invited to join the workshop’s final closing panel, What Have We Learned, Where Do We Go From Here? It was an honor to be on this panel given the stature of the other panelists and the importance of sharing our views on what we saw as the direction neuroengineering and the SMC BMI Workshop should take. Several panelists, including myself, addressed the need for interdisciplinary (and in my case, transdisciplinary) research.

My advice for those who’ve yet to participate in an IEEE SMC BMI Brain Hackathon? Get involved as soon as you can.

I’m already packing my bags for next year’s BMI Workshop, to be held 5 -8 October during the 2017 IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. The event will be at the beautiful Banff Center in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada—and I hope to see you there.

Please don’t let me down.

Stuart Mason Dambrot is a Transdisciplinary Researcher, Research Fellow at Brain Machine Interface Consortium, and Research Fellow at Artificial General Intelligence Society. He is a member of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics Society; IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society; IEEE Brain Community; IEEE Life Sciences Community; IEEE Nanotechnology Council; IEEE Sensors Council; World Future Society; Humanity+ (previous Board Member); and Lifeboat Foundation (Advisory Board). Stuart has recently published Exocortical Cognition: Heads in the Cloud (in press), The Zeitgeist of Change: The evolutionary neurobiology of political behavior and Of Mind and Money: Post-scarcity economics and human nature.

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