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Can This Company Create A “Neural Prosthetic” To Reprogram Our Brains To Be Smarter?

The quest of Kernel (and other companies like it) to map the brain’s neurons and then develop implants to manipulate them will be the subject of a new film by Supersize Me‘s Morgan Spurlock.

For the last eight months, serial entrepreneur Bryan Johnson has conducted an experiment: He invites a small group of the smartest people he knows to dinner and asks them what they think needs to happen to reach their vision of an ideal world by 2050.

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The answers–from solving the climate crisis to curing cancer–never focus on improving human intelligence. But Johnson, who has committed $100 million of his own money to develop a wildly ambitious “neural prosthetic” that would essentially be able to reprogram the brain, believes that making humans smarter is key to helping solve every other problem.

Bryan Johnson [Photo: courtesy Kernel]
“I think that unlocking the brain is the most consequential endeavor, and probably the most epic adventure that humanity’s ever embarked upon . . . Everything we’re trying to solve–climate science or education or breakthroughs in health–it all emanates from the brain,” Johnson tells Fast Company.

In a new, as-yet-unnamed documentary that recently began filming, Supersize Me documentarian Morgan Spurlock will tell the story of Johnson’s startup, called Kernel, and the work of several other companies and researchers attempting to understand “neural code” and produce brain implants or other tools that could rewrite that code through stimulating neurons in a different way. In theory, this type of technology could treat Alzheimer’s disease or depression–or help human brains keep up with increasingly sophisticated robots. (Johnson provided initial funding for the film, along with Futurism Studios, but Spurlock has creative control.)

“I think that it is modern-day sci-fi come to life,” says Spurlock. “I love the idea of being able to capture this in a way that I think will transfix audiences as much as I am transfixed just by the information. And I think it’s the chance to tell a story that we all hear about, that we are a bit taken aback by, but at the same time, I think to normalize it in a way where an audience will feel like it’s not something we should be afraid of.”

The technology doesn’t yet exist, and will require lots of future medical breakthroughs before it can be realized. But some brain implants–either deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s disease or cochlear implants for hearing–are already in use by hundreds of thousands of people. “So it’s not a totally novel concept . . . We can put these foreign objects into the brain and they can be there for chronic implantation,” Johnson says. “What we’re doing is significantly improving these tool sets by building a general purpose electrophysiology platform.” (Electrophysiology measures the electrical properties of biological cells, such as neurons.)

He compares the platform to previous technologies that have reshaped society, such as the printing press or the internet. “Each of these platforms basically allows humans to create a new evolutionary track of ideas and of technologies, for example, that we’ve seen in the internet and computers,” he says. “And if you think that these platforms have been consequential or revolutionary in nature, the brain is the master of them all.”

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The first step in developing the technology is understanding how the 86 billion neurons in the brain fire to create memories or allow us to communicate or move muscles–a major challenge since little is known so far. “We’re not quite sure how the brain does what it does,” he says. “We’re beginning to gain some insight, but we just don’t know a lot about how the brain functions.” Even the best tools today can only record the activity of a tiny fraction of neurons.

Still, the field may move quickly, particularly now that major investment is happening in the area. After Johnson launched Kernel, Elon Musk launched a similar startup called Neuralink. Johnson thinks that progress might happen faster than expected, in the same way that the human genome was mapped much more quickly–and more affordably–than researchers initially expected at the turn of the millennium.

Machine learning can help identify patterns in neural data sets much faster than humans could have in the past. Neuroscience tools for studying the brain are also quickly improving. Microelectronics are evolving, and will continue to evolve to the point that they could potentially be implanted without harming delicate brain tissue.

Should those discoveries pan out, the first versions of Kernel’s technology will focus on treating disease. If it’s possible to understand how memories are formed, it may be possible to recreate that process in someone with dementia, for example. But Johnson’s longer-term goal is that the technology could be used by anyone to improve brain function. He envisions us having similar policy arguments to the current debates about genetically editing humans. In a 2016 Pew survey, most Americans said they would not want to use a “brain chip” to make them smarter, and a majority said they would be “very” or “somewhat” worried about the technology.

“Just like we’ve had civil rights, human rights, abortion rights, marriage rights, the next big debate to consume our society will be evolution rights,” says Johnson. “A person’s ability to opt in and opt out of a technology that improves their ability, to not just fix something that’s broken.”

Elon Musk has argued that we need to enhance human intelligence if we want to keep up with artificial intelligence and avoid becoming the pets–or slaves–of future robots. Another framing is more benign. “You could say there’s this co-evolution–that we’re not in a competition with AI but we’re actually co-evolving with it,” Johnson says. “Just like when we can’t leave our phones for three seconds today, this co-evolution has already begun and is just going to get tighter and tighter.”

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The film, he hopes, may shape how people think about the technology. “The stories that we tell about emerging technologies have a huge influence on what people actually do,” he says. “And right now there really is not a good story out there about neuroscience or the brain.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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