For the first time since the last in-person hackathon in 2020, students from all across the world coalesced at Stanford over President’s Day weekend to attend TreeHacks — the University’s premier hackathon. Stanford’s Huang Engineering Center served as a temporary home for over 1,700 collegiate hackers, who hacked for 36 hours straight.
Hundreds of teams composed of various experience levels and backgrounds worked together in caffeinated harmony to produce nearly 300 new projects — over half of which leveraged recent advancements in artificial intelligence (AI).
While over 50 prizes were handed out in total, the coveted ‘Most Technical Hack’ award was given to a team who built a novel crypto product called Proactive Refresh, which addresses previously unaccounted-for security weaknesses in decentralized vaults on the blockchain. Each member of the team — UCLA’s Nathan Leung, University of Waterloo’s Jaclyn Chan and Stanford’s own Lyron Keh ’23 and Kaylee George ’24 — took home the latest version of Apple’s Mac Mini.
Other winning teams like Transit Tracker, Eddy, Communipute and ShipSense took home cash prizes of up to $2,000 thanks to the event’s generous sponsors. In aggregate, more than 50 sponsors provided over $124,000 in prize money, according to the hackathon’s Devpost.
At the event’s opening keynote last Friday night, Andrej Karpathy Ph.D. ’15, founding member of OpenAI and former director of artificial intelligence at Tesla, addressed the future of AI in the tech industry: “The hottest new programming language is English.” He continued to explain that natural language processing (NLP) technology like GPT-3 is indicative of an entirely novel era in tech that we have only recently entered. He calls it “Software 2.0”.
Karpathy urged students to begin acquainting themselves with some of the skills required of “Software 2.0,” including one in particular that is coming to be referred to as “prompt engineering.” Prompt engineering is a new programming method that involves steering large language models like ChatGPT to fulfill coding tasks for the programmer rather than programmers manually writing the code themselves. Anthropic recently set the bar for prompt engineer pay, disclosing a salary range of $170K and $325K for the position at their company.
“I just love TreeHacks as an event. I think it’s a very unique thing that happens in Silicon Valley. It’s so much bigger and better [than other hackathons],” Karpathy said. “Hackers are the explorers of everything that’s possible. I love the creativity of the crowds here and I love to be inspired by everyone.”
The AI-centered address was a telling sign of what was to come during the 36-hour sprint. By the time of the event’s last submission, at least 50% of all projects submitted incorporated some element of the latest advancements in AI. One such project, called Priva, was hacked together by a group of Stanford students leveraging GPT-3, the underlying language processing model of ChatGPT.
“Priva is basically a Chrome extension that summarizes and condenses privacy policies,” team member Grace Zhou ‘23 explained. She spoke of the team’s desire to address the all-too-familiar consumer nightmare of “signing up for a service and not realizing until later that your sensitive personal information was being stored and possibly given away to third parties.”
Another team built a product called ChartGPT, which effectively generates “beautiful charts from natural language prompts.” One member of this team, Jonas Derissen, flew in by himself all the way from Switzerland to participate in TreeHacks, despite having initially been waitlisted and having no guarantee of admittance. Upon his arrival, organizers were quick to reward his journey and help him find a team.
“It was an absolutely incredible experience and I would one hundred percent do it again,” Derissen said. He added that he had sacrificed the first day of his university semester back in Switzerland in order to participate in the hackathon.
Given the endurance demanded by a 36-hour programming stint, many hackers opted for seated power naps in between bursts of computer time throughout the day. It was typical to see students slumped over in front of their laptops while teammates carried shifts.
But come nighttime in Huang — an academic facility and by no means a hotel — comfortable sleeping arrangements for longer slumbers were hard to come by. Some hackers were lucky to occupy cushioned booths in Forbes Family Cafe, while others managed to line up rows of chairs to create makeshift beds. The vast majority of attendees, however, were left to their own devices in the Huang hallways on the cold concrete floors — not atypical of the standard hackathon.
“It got a little chaotic at times but I think it’s kind of unavoidable given the amount of people,” said Jia Yi Lee, an attending hacker on a J-1 visa from Singapore. “Honestly, kudos to the organizing team for making it happen, definitely not easy. You could tell that they were passionate about making it happen and the impression today is that everybody enjoyed the event.”
Though the event is entirely student organized, this year’s TreeHacks was heavily supported by the sponsorship of Silicon Valley giants and venture capital firms like Meta, OpenAI, Palantir and Y Combinator. In addition to the generous prizes, sponsors pitched in for TreeHacks’ food and travel accommodations.
“We wanted to make sure that there were no obstructions,” said Theo Baker ’26, a member of the TreeHacks’ organizer team. Baker is also a staff writer at The Stanford Daily. “We pay for a ton of hardware, we pay to have all of these APIs, all of these workshops, all in hopes that we are providing opportunities for exceptional people to do exceptional things. And all of this is made possible by the incredible sponsors that we’ve worked with who put not just money forward, but their own expertise and personnel.”
While TreeHacks sponsors provided support for the hackathon, the event also enabled sponsors to recruit young talent. Many sponsors manned booths with company representatives in order to get acquainted with curious hackers and chat about career opportunities.
Y Combinator, a world-leading venture capital firm responsible for cutting checks to companies like Airbnb, Coinbase, Stripe, Reddit and more, interviewed roughly 70 teams over the course of the hackathon. Two of their favorite teams, Theia and Woodside, were invited to dinner at YC headquarters and guaranteed future meetings with the firm whenever they felt ready to pitch.
“Yeah, TreeHacks seems to be in really good hands,” said Karpathy. “They should continue running it.”
Planning for TreeHacks 2024 is already under way.