3 “Hacks” That Could Change the World

BlackRock’s Chief Engineer, Jody Kochansky, shares his views from PennApps XVI.


“Hi, I’m a hacker.”

On any normal day, this might be cause for alarm. Not at PennApps, the semi-annual convergence of student engineers, data scientists and some of the world’s most innovative companies at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Engineering.  It’s the common greeting.

There is a reason why I, along with my long-time colleagues Rob Goldstein and Sunil Dalal, couldn’t resist this “36 hour code party,” as one high school hacker called it – and it’s not the cool swag. The innovations that have come out of PennApps, and other student hackathons like it, have improved lives, disrupted industries, and in their own way have helped change the world – almost always for the better.

Behind the Chaos

You can’t help but quickly get immersed in the chaos that is PennApps.  Behind the chaos, however, is the magic: the mix of young talent, limitless passion for technology’s potential, and access to APIs that provide an open door to massive sets of non-personal data.

There were many “hacks” that deserve recognition, but three in particular have the potential to make a world of difference:

  1.  Imagine a world where the blind can read and process information almost as quickly as those fortunate to have full vision. That is exactly what the Sight Stone team set out to accomplish. The technology they developed can give life to letters on a page by parsing an image into characters, translating those characters into braille, and raising a grid of dots that allow the user to feel the braille with their fingertips. Similar technologies exist, but thus far can only translate a handful of letters at a time, at a relatively high cost.  Sight Stone’s objective is to significantly reduce the cost and increase the number of letters to help level the playing field for the vision impaired.
  2.  Using BlackRock’s API, the team behind Genie – a student-built chatbot – is using technology to improve access to financial tools and help people make smarter investment choices. Named after BlackRock’s Aladdin platform, Genie aims to provide users with information and relevant advice about their finances in real time and at almost no cost.  The chatbot provides investment options, securities, and risk analytics in response to user queries made in natural language.
  3.  Sorty McSortface, as the name implies, uses image recognition to sort trash from recycling. The implications for the environment are far reaching, which is why this makes my top three. However, it also helps solve an everyday problem – that people just can’t seem to figure out what gets recycled and what is waste. To do this, a motion sensor detects the object in place, an image of that object is sent to a cloud API where the contents are identified, and motors then organize the waste into the appropriate bin.  This is a great example of technology being used to solve a practical use, while helping make the world a better place to live.

The fact that these three groundbreaking hacks, and hundreds more, were developed in less than 36 hours makes them all the more impressive, and demonstrates the true power of technology.

BlackRock’s own Hackathons have led to new business innovations including Aladdin Risk for Wealth Management, which provides risk management and portfolio construction tools to leading wealth managers, empowering them to make smarter investment choices for investors of every size.

Above all, last weekend inspired me, and re-affirmed my long-held belief that technology is made possible by people. Even as companies like ours invest in powerful new technologies, our most important investment is in people who continue to push the boundaries of what is possible.


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