Venice Beach, Calif.--Like many in Silicon Valley, technology entrepreneur Bryan Johnson sees a future in which intelligent machines can do things like drive cars on their own and anticipate our needs before we ask.
What’s uncommon is how Johnson wants to respond: find a way to supercharge the human brain so that we can keep up with the machines.
From an unassuming office in Venice Beach, his science-fiction-meets-science start-up, Kernel, is building a tiny chip that can be implanted in the brain to help people suffering from neurological damage caused by strokes, Alzheimer’s or concussions. The team of top neuroscientists building the chip--they call it a neuroprosthetic--hope that in the longer term, it will be able to boost intelligence, memory and other cognitive tasks.
The medical device is years in the making, Johnson acknowledges, but he can afford the time. He sold his payments company, Braintree, to PayPal for $800 million in 2013. A former Mormon raised in Utah, the 38-year-old speaks about the project with missionary-like intensity and focus.
“Human intelligence is landlocked in relationship to artificial intelligence--and the landlock is the degeneration of the body and the brain,” he said in an interview about the company, which he had not discussed publicly before. “This is a question of keeping humans front and center as we progress.”
Johnson stands out among an elite set of entrepreneurs who believe Silicon Valley can play a role in funding large-scale scientific discoveries--the kind that can dramatically improve human life in ways that go beyond building software.
Though many of their ventures draw from software principles: In the last two years, venture capital firms like Y-Combinator, Andreessen Horowitz, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Khosla Ventures and others have poured money into start-ups that focus on “bio-hacking”--the notion that you can engineer the body the way you would a software program. They’ve funded companies that aim to sequence the bacteria in the gut, reprogram the DNA you were born with, or conduct cancer biopsies from samples of blood. They’ve backed what are known as cognitive-enhancement businesses like Thync, which builds a headset that sends mood-altering electrical pulses to the brain, and Nootrobox, a start-up that makes chewable coffee supplements that combine doses of caffeine with active ingredients in green tea, leading to a precisely-engineered, zenlike high.
It’s easy to dismiss these efforts as the hubristic, techno-utopian fantasies of a self-involved elite that believes it can defy death and human decline--and in doing so, confer even more advantages on the already-privileged.
And while there’s no shortage of hubris in Silicon Valley, it’s also undoubtable some of these projects will accelerate scientific breakthroughs and fill some of the gaps left in the wake of declining public funding for scientific research, said Laurie Zoloth, professor of Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University. Moreover, techies are motivated by the fact that many biological and health challenges increasingly involve data-mining and computation; they’re looking more like problems that they know how to solve. Large-scale genome sequencing, for example, has long been seen as key to unlocking targeted cancer therapies and detecting disease far earlier than current methods; it’s becoming more of a reality as the cost of sequencing, storing and analyzing the data has dropped dramatically, leading to a flood of investments in that area.
Kernel is cognitive enhancement of the not-gimmicky variety. The concept is based on the work of Theodore Berger, a pioneering biomedical engineer who directs the Center for Neural Engineering at the University of Southern California, and is the startup’s chief science officer.
For over two decades, Berger has been working on building a neuroprosthetic to help people with dementia, strokes, concussions, brain injuries and Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicts 1 in 9 adults over 65.
The implanted devices try to replicate the way brain cells communicate with one another. Let’s say, for example, that you are having a conversation with your boss. A healthy brain will convert that conversation from short-term memory to long-term memory by firing off a set of electrical signals. The signals fire in a specific code that is unique to each person and is a bit like a software command.
Brain diseases throw off these signaling codes. Berger’s software tries to assist the communication between brain cells by making an instantaneous prediction as to what the healthy code should be, and then firing off in that pattern.
Johnson recognizes that the notion of people walking around with chips implanted in their heads to make them smarter seems far-fetched, to put it mildly. He says the goal is to build a product that is widely affordable, but acknowledges there are challenges. He points out that many scientific discoveries and inventions--even the printing press--started out for a privileged group but ended up providing massive benefits to humanity. The primary benefits of Kernel, he says, will be for the sick, for the millions of people who have lost their memories because of brain disorders. Even a small improvement in memory--a person with dementia might be able to remember the location of the bathroom in their home, for example--can help people maintain their dignity and enjoy a greater quality of life.
And in an age of AI, he insists that boosting the capacity of our brains is itself an urgent public concern. “Whatever endeavor we imagine--flying cars, go to Mars--it all fits downstream from our intelligence,” he says. “It is the most powerful resource in existence. It is the master tool.”