History of the Cochlear Implant Hackathon

One of the greatest successes in the history of medicine has been the development of the cochlear implant. Cochlear implants are amazing electrical devices that restore hearing to people who are born without hearing or lose their hearing over time.

Cochlear implants have two components: and internal portion that is placed surgically and remains in the body permanently, and an external component called the sound processor. The sound processor is worn on the body near the ear, picks up sound via a microphone, converts the sound to electrical signals, then sends those electrical signals across the skin to the implant, which then directly stimulates the nerve of hearing with a particular pattern of electrical signals. The particular way that the pattern of electrical signals is generated from any given sound has a great influence over how good something sounds to a cochlear implant user.

Over the past 30 years, great strides have been made in the algorithms used to generate the pattern of electrical signals (the encoding algorithms), but cochlear implant users are still far from having normal hearing. This could be for one of two reasons: either we have reached the limits of the technology, or we need new and better ideas about how to encode sound into electrical signals that stimulate the nerve of hearing.

We believe we can do better.

We were inspired by the citizen scientist-engineers of the Open APS project (http://bit.ly/2NZAqJP)) (http://openaps.org/) who decided to take control of their own medical devices in the name of making them work better for their lives. We were further inspired by the crowdsourcing efforts of citizen scientists and projects such as fold it (https://fold.it/portal/info/about#folditpub)) where the brains of people with no prior direct experience in the problems to be solved could be harnessed for the forces of good. Therefore, we wanted to ask the question:

Can we use the power of crowdsourced science to find better ways to convert sounds into electrical signals so that people with cochlear implants can hear better?

In service of this goal, we are holding the first ever cochlear implant hackathon!

We will provide YOU with some of the tools used to convert sound into electrical signals used by cochlear implants, and a simulator of what the output would sound like to a cochlear implant user. The job of the hacker will be to come up with a better way to convert the sound into electrical signals to make it sound even better than the best algorithms currently available. We plan on rapidly taking the best algorithms and trying them on real cochlear implant users and seeing if we can improve their hearing!