Pressing the Pause Button for Numenta’s First Internal Hackathon

One of my favorite places in the Numenta office is the conference room. It’s where we sit and chat over lunch every day, gather for company updates, or even listen to guest speakers from time to time. Our conversations in this room cover a wide range of topics, as you can imagine. It’s not uncommon for seedlings of HTM projects to be planted during those chats. Sometimes the seedlings can be cultivated, or shared with the community for further exploration. Many times, however, they are pushed to the back of our minds or relegated to that elusive, “If I ever have free time, I’m going to work on this” list.

A couple months ago, one of our engineers had an idea: What if we could dedicate a day or two to work on a Numenta project that may be outside our day-to-day responsibilities? From that, the first Numenta Internal Hackathon was born.

In the weeks leading up to the hackathon, we were encouraged to share our ideas for projects, and decide whether we wanted to work in teams or solo. As for the projects, nothing was off limits, and they were not confined to engineering and technical hacks. The entire company was involved, which meant we had projects ranging from writing to coding to improving the office.

We kicked off the event Monday morning, where Matt briefly went over the guidelines.

Numenta Internal Hacakthon Rules

The first rule of internal hackathons: there are no rules

And with that, we were off. So how did the projects turn out? Here are some of the highlights:

Marion and Thomas (Team French) – Encodeur Cochlée

Marion and Thomas, a visiting scholar, teamed up to tackle the creation of a frequency encoder that was inspired by how the human cochlea encodes sounds. The best part about this pairing was the fact that they’re both native French speakers, so it was nice to hear a steady stream of French in the office for two days.

If you’re interested in seeing the details or using the encoder, Marion shared the results of this project with the community on the HTM Forum.

Numenta Internal Hacakthon Hacakthon encoder team

C’est tres bien! – Marion and Thomas discuss their encoder

Marcus – Visualization: Stacks of Time Series

About a year ago, Marcus created a really cool visualization of “segment lifetimes,” which you can view on his blog. This visualization was useful, but not easily reusable. So Marcus used the two days to do the inverse of a hack. As he put it, “Most of my life is a hackathon.” He wanted to create something that could be easily recreated by anyone, including himself.

“That blog post involved lots of duct tape,” Marcus explained. “I later found myself wishing I could see the segment lifetimes of lots of HTM experiments, so it was worth putting in some time to actually ship it.” The end result is now available for anyone to use at

Luiz and Subutai (Team Nik) – Numenta Inverse Kinematics

Luiz and Subutai joined forces to explore whether we can learn inverse kinematics using HTM. This is a concept well known in robotics that computes the desired position of a figure.  It’s essentially figuring out: if I know the position I want to move to, how do I position the body to get there? For example, if I want to reach out and touch something at a known location, how would I position my arm so that my fingers are actually touching the object?  The brain has to solve the same problem, so they wanted to figure out if we could learn inverse mappings using biologically plausible HTM neurons.

Numenta Internal Hacakthon Team NIK

Team Nik hacking away

Learning inverse kinematics is a challenging task in general. The results are preliminary but after two days of hacking, all signs point to yes, you can use HTM to learn inverse kinematics.

“The hackathon was a fun way to prototype something cool that is not directly related to our day to day work. We hope to keep working on it in our spare time to get it more solid,” said Subutai. If you’re interested in learning more about the work Luiz and Subutai did, you can view the project details at

Celeste – HTM Education for Younger Children

Inspired by talks she has given recently at local schools, Celeste took on an education project. She wanted to come up with ways to interest students in the brain and HTM at a younger age than college, and particularly encourage girls and students of color. She identified education approaches and content based on age groups – from kindergarten through high school. “I’m always impressed by how engaged young students are when I speak at schools,” Celeste said. “They’re fascinated by how the brain works. I’d love to see a day when they’re taught brain theory from an early age.” With potential targets for prototypes of HTM Youth Education, perhaps Celeste’s project is a first step to getting us there.

Austin – Touch Bar Hack

Anyone who has seen the latest MacBook Pro has also seen the new Touch Bar feature. Advertised as a built-in touch strip that provides “instant access to the tools you want, right when you want them,” Austin figured, why not use this feature to display HTM anomaly results? He created an app that you can use on canned data sources. Download it here if you want to try it. You can also view a short video Austin created to describe the project here.

The Mystery Hack

Perhaps the most impressive hack was one done by a team member that had to be out of town during the hackathon. She surprised us all with a top-secret project that was waiting for us Monday morning: the Clean Desk Hack.

Numenta Internal Hacakthon Hacakthon Clean Desk

You can use your imagination for the “Before” shot

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner

There were no prizes or awards given, as this was more of a team-building event than a contest. Don’t be fooled into thinking there wasn’t any competition, however. To celebrate the end of the hackathon, we headed over to Home Chef Cooking School to engage in a fierce “Chopped”-style cooking challenge.

Numenta Internal Hacakthon - Cooking Competition Austin and Scott

Austin and Scott prepare to plate

Numenta Internal Hacakthon - Cooking Competition Matt

Matt explains the dish

Numenta Internal Hacakthon - Cooking Competition Dig in

Digging in

With the first Numenta internal hackathon in the books, now it’s back to our regularly scheduled programming, but things are not exactly the same as before. Some of these projects will continue, and many may help inform our current work. More importantly, there’s a sense of renewed enthusiasm and satisfaction among the team–the kind that can only come from checking an item off a list you rarely get to touch. And we all have a few new cooking tricks up our sleeves now.

What’s on your “If only I had time to do” list?

Numenta Internal Hacakthon - Cooking Competition Dig in

The winning dish: cornucopia pepper with chicken stir-fry, roasted
purple cauliflower and zucchini with wilted spinach, and cold Thai
noodle salad

Christy Maver • Director of Marketing