No, the Zombie Apocalypse has not come to Tel Aviv.
Freddy Krueger has not made aliya, and the Technion has no recent graduates by the name of Frankenstein. So what exactly is Israel’s Brain Hack?
On Wednesday night, some 70 neuroscientists, artists, designers, robotics experts, entrepreneurs, self-described tech geeks and, yes, hackers gathered at a Tel Aviv bar to have a few drinks, munch on brain food and lay the groundwork for a neurohackathon called Brainihack, the first hackathon of its kind, which will serve as a prelude to BrainTech Israel 2013, the first-ever Israeli Brain Technology Conference.
The conference will be held at the Tel Aviv Port on October 14 and 15.
As in other hackathons, groups will compete in Brainihack to develop viable products over the course of an intense weekend together.
What makes it special is that it will focus on Brain Computer Interface (BCI) devices, which can interpret brain waves and use them to interact with computers.
“It’s futuristic, completely mind-blowing stuff. When you see it work, when you try it, it’s like having a sixth sense or another organ,” said Hamutal Meridor, 33, a tech entrepreneur and part of the management team at Israel Brain Technologies (IBT), the group organizing both the hackathon and the Brain Technology Conference.
“I’ve literally been waiting for this revolution to come for the last 10 years. Now that it’s here, my goal is to get as many creative people’s hands on this technology. It’s totally selfish – I just want to see what people are going to do with it!” self-described brain-geek Meridor said of the hackathon.
She’s understandably excited; Brainihack was her brain child.
The participants are already brimming with exciting ideas.
One wanted to find a way to control a toy car with his thoughts. Another wanted to create cerebral art by connecting a brainwave-reading headset to a 3-D printer.
Though some people might think they’re out of their minds, their ideas are not outlandish.
Technology has brought the cost of brain-reading devices down from the tens of thousands to mere hundreds, and developers are just starting to brainstorm a fascinating array of uses.
“It sounds like science fiction, but it’s no longer science fiction – it’s real,” IBT executive director Miri Polachek said.
When the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart performed in Israel earlier this month, his performance included a light show created by his brain waves, transmitted from a special electroencephalography (EEG) cap to a light projector.
In January, an AT&T hackathon participant named Ruggero Scorcioni won $30,000 for inventing an app that blocked incoming phone calls when it sensed he was busy concentrating.
Some day, cars may be able to brake faster because they will read when people want to stop before their feet can hit the pedal. People will move robotic limbs with their thoughts, while a host of devices will improve cognitive enhancement, improving focus.
While the hackathon is a great venue for branching out BrainTech into fields such as gaming, education, sports, entertainment, defense and productivity, until now most of the technology has been devoted to medical purposes.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think finding a cure for Alzheimer’s is way more important for humanity, but I’m a techie,” Meridor said.
Globally, there is huge potential in medical applications for brain technology.
“It’s a multi-billion dollar business,” said Polachek, adding that medical costs and lost productivity are estimated at a trillion dollars a year.
A 2011 McKinsey & Company report found that many of the factors that make Israel a start-up nation – innovative thinking, good education, government support for research and development – alongside its life sciences and medical successes, position it to be a world leader in brain technology.
“The next horizon for Israel is neurotechnology,” the report concluded. “It is an enormous challenge but a hugely worthwhile one, with the potential to transform the world in which we live. It is only by bringing together global leaders across many fields that we can collectively rise to this challenge.”
On the heels of the report, President Shimon Peres declared that “the brain is more important now than ever before,” and lent his support to the creation of IBT to help turn the “start-up nation” into the “brain nation.”
At the conference, the group will also present its first $1 million B.R.A.I.N. Prize (Breakthrough Research And Innovation in Neurotechnology). Of the 70 international applications submitted, 10 finalists will present at the conference, where a panel of judges including three Nobel Prize laureates (Eric Kandel, Daniel Kahneman and Bert Sakmann) will select one winner.
“BrainTech Israel 2013 is a prime opportunity to meet global leaders in neurotechnology, and to be exposed to some of the most cutting-edge developments in the industry,” said Rafi Gidron, the founder of IBT and chairman of the conference.
“No one is really interested in bringing the neuroscience community to brain tech. It’s quite ambitious to try and do that; but if it work, it will be a huge shift,” added Meridor.
“I think it’s going to happen inevitably whether we’re there or not, but we’re trying to make Israel a leader: No. 1 in the world.”