Many people may not be aware of this, but Alberta is a global leader in neuroscience — the study of the brain and brain behaviour — and, increasingly, the development of neurotechnologies, i.e. the practical applications of this science.
One organization that is aware of this fact, and is doing everything in its power to get more people involved, is NeurAlbertaTech. As their website explains: “the purpose of our group is to build a worldwide community that facilitates neurotechnological innovations.” They do this through initiating and supporting new projects, teaching tangible neurotech relevant skills, and hosting a wide range of events.
One of the biggest events they’ve ever organized happened this past summer, and Cybera was there to provide cloud infrastructure support.
Running July 30 – August 2, natHACKS was “Alberta’s inaugural brain-computer interface hackathon.” Over 100 participants ended up submitting a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) product related to rehabilitation, recreation, or research, with an additional stream open to junior participants. The winners received $10,000 to continue developing their ideas.
The winning projects included platforms for offering more affordable, web-based therapies for people dealing with chronic pain, brain injuries, or conditions such as OCD, Autism and ADHD. Others created tools to help people optimize their “flow state” at work, wake up at the most optimal time (to avoid grogginess), or stay awake while driving.
“We had everyone from experienced computer scientists to people who had never coded before taking part,” says Eden Redman, Executive Director of NeurAlbertaTech.
To give everyone a level playing field, natHacks offered two weeks’ of learning content in the lead up to the hackathon, including a cloud tutorial from Cybera. The Rapid Access Cloud — a free, public cloud managed by Cybera for research and learning activities — was then made available to teams during the hackathon to develop their projects.
It’s not rocket science
“Our main goal was to get more people learning and innovating with BCI technologies,” says Redman. “Between being global leaders in neuroscience and machine learning, we already have the individual components in Alberta needed to forge a vibrant neurotechnology ecosystem and support the diversification of the economy. Our entrepreneurial landscape is so strong! We want to provide target support for growth in this space, to grow a mosaic at this intersection of disciplines.”
He sees great potential in the combination of technology and the human nervous system to create meaningful interfaces.
Other projects currently being supported by NeurAlbertaTech include an open-access web platform that uses BCI tech and machine learning to improve a person’s ability to learn to speak Mandarin. Another is looking at new ways to generate art through brain activity.
Redman particularly enjoys creating abstract art through neurotechnologies. “If you step back far enough, brain imaging isn’t uniquely challenging in its own right, it can all be boiled down to signal processing. Knowing this, I was drawn to developing new paradigms for this technology, ones that are applicable to everyday life. The mix of science and art is particularly fascinating to me.”
NeurAlbertaTech continues to hold workshops throughout the year, focused on everything from software and hardware skills, to machine learning and neuroscience principles needed to start and develop a BCI project. These sessions are open to anyone to attend, and are frequently attended by high school students as well as industry professionals.
After completing the workshops, participants are invited to start their own BCI project, or join an existing one, utilizing the resources and expertise of the NeurAlbertaTech volunteers.