Literally – meet the $100m project to read/write the mind
Technical work demands tools. Software developers have integrated development environments and text editors. Genetic researchers have gene sequencing machines and CRISPR. Doctors have too many toys to name.
Bryan Johnson, founder and CEO of Kernel, wants to build tools for interacting with the human brain.
For all the fawning over artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley, human intelligence still reigns supreme outside of narrowly defined tasks.
After selling his gray-matter themed payments company Braintree to Paypal for $800 million in 2013, Johnson committed $100 million toward developing neural interfaces, initially for therapeutic purposes.
Johnson is not alone in his cerebral curiosity. Billionaire company starter Elon Musk and the US military’s research arm DARPA, among others, have begun looking seriously at opportunities to link mind and machine, a sign that the foundational science has solidified enough to suggest a path forward.
In a phone interview with The Register, Johnson explained that for about two decades people have had access to cochlear implants and to deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s Disease.
More recently, he said, researchers have demonstrated that people fitted with a Utah Electrode Array can carry out actions, like browsing the internet or typing, by expressing intent in thought.
“My objective with Kernel is to be able to read and write the underlying functions of the human brain,” he said. “The first step to do that is to build better tools.”
Johnson said that when you talk to people about challenges facing society, understanding the brain never comes up.
“The brain is the most powerful form of generalized intelligence in the known universe,” said Johnson. “But we don’t think about it as something we can explore.”
That may be a consequence of the fact that past brain explorations, such as ice pick lobotomies, look in hindsight like stumbling about in the dark.
But now that scientists have begun making some progress in understanding how to interpret what’s going on inside people’s heads, Johnson argues that the brain should become a more critical focus for our species.
“The brain is most consequential endeavor in the history of the human race,” he said.
Making progress, Johnson believes, will depend upon framing the goals of researchers in a way that focuses on the opportunities rather than the risks and on an amenable regulatory environment.
The world’s regulatory landscape, he said, pushes brain research toward fixing what’s broken. But eventually he expects research will extend beyond medical workarounds for physical and mental impairments.
Where that will lead, however, isn’t obvious.
“Every time humans have contemplated the possibilities of a new technology, our imagination has failed us,” said Johnson.
You can’t see what’s in Pandora’s Box until you open it.