Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Berkeley pushes AI innovation, research with ‘Woodstock of Hackathons’

Rows of hackers working in a room.

The UC Berkeley AI LLM Hackathon will be the largest in-person AI LLM hackathon to date. Sponsors include OpenAI and Microsoft. Over $200,000 in prize money and investments will be awarded to 4 teams. (Photo courtesy of Berkeley Skydeck)

When UC Berkeley announced we’d be hosting the inaugural, signature UC Berkeley AI LLM Hackathon, in a matter of days, over 1,500 hackers signed up to participate. But the explosive attention given to this event was not shocking. ChatGPT is immensely popular and the Application Programming Interface (API) is difficult for developers to access.

As Yuval Noah Harari so well defined in his April 28 article in The Economist about the impact of AI on society, this is a “turning point in technological history.” And while there have been recent concerns and warnings of AI’s existential threat to humanity, people’s perspectives differ markedly — and that’s a good thing.

So why is Berkeley hosting this hackathon?

Berkeley has always been a pioneer in innovation with the objective of making positive change in the world. For generations, Berkeley has had the reputation of a public institution committed to evolution of the greater good. Such public mindedness at the institutional level, coupled with the importance of personal agency among those who choose to come to Berkeley, sets us apart from the usual suspects.

For many, Berkeley has also been a birthplace for early AI thinking. The Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research (BAIR) Lab at Berkeley spans research in the areas of computer vision, machine learning, natural language processing, planning, control, and robotics. BAIR’s predecessor labs paved the path in the field of AI and have been home to renowned researchers. Berkeley faculty Stuart Russell is often cited among the earliest thought leaders in the AI space, and authored the textbook from which so many experts got their start.

This foundation in AI, and continued expertise, has helped to support an uptick in companies coming out of Berkeley focused on AI and Large Language Models (LLMs). Databricks and Anyscale are just two of the many AI startups to get their start here, having raised more than $4 billion collectively, and all the while revolutionizing how data is used to make better decisions.

There is also great excitement around the potential of LLMs like GPT-4, and Berkeley AI researchers are behind much of that connected innovation. Berkeley alums are driving development at companies such as OpenAI and Anthropic, and our research labs are publishing open-source projects like Vicuna, OpenLLaMa, Gorilla, and more.

Many startups admitted to the latest cohort of Berkeley’s premier accelerator, Berkeley SkyDeck, have deeply integrated AI LLMs into their core product. I’d wager that in a few years, a majority of startups coming through will have LLMs incorporated into their tech stack.

We’re at a fascinating “epi-inflection point” in generative AI. There are so many valid concerns surrounding it, but if events like this, and others, help set a strong cultural orientation toward AI innovation that is ethical and responsible, there is much room for advancement that improves our lives in ways we can’t begin to fathom.

It comes as no surprise that this year’s Berkeley AI LLM Hackathon is shaping up as the “Woodstock of Hackathons.” Here’s to more convenings of the highest order.


Rich Lyons has been the Chief Innovation and Entrepreneurship Officer at UC Berkeley since 2020, coordinating the network of over 85 campus leaders who manage the incubators, accelerators, programs, and institutes on campus. From 2008 to 2018, Lyons served as dean of UC Berkeley’s Haas School. He was recently named chair of the newly-formed UC President’s Entrepreneurship Council, which will work across all 10 UC campuses to advance innovation and entrepreneurship.