You probably clicked on this article because the idea of using brain implants to allow artificial intelligence (AI) to read your brain sounds futuristic and fascinating. It is fascinating, but it’s not as futuristic as you might think. Before we start talking about brain implants and how to augment the human brain using AI, we need to put some context around human intelligence and why we might want to tinker with it.
We floated the idea before that gene editing techniques could allow us to promote genetic intelligence by performing gene editing at the germline. That’s one approach. As controversial as it might be, some solid scientific research shows that genetics does play a role in intelligence. For those of us who are already alive and well, this sort of intelligence enhancement won’t work. This is where we might look towards augmented intelligence. This sort of augmentation of the brain will firstly be preventative in that it will look to assist those who have age associated brain disorders as an example. In order for augmented intelligence to be feasible though, we need a read/write interface to the human brain. One company called Kernel might be looking to address this with a technology that takes a page out of science fiction.
The advanced intelligence of tomorrow is a collaboration between the natural and the artificial. United, unheard of possibilities abound. We’re building off two decades of breakthrough research, working closely with private partners and scientists to get usable solutions in the hands of people everywhere. We’re starting with potential applications for patients with cognitive disorders.
To understand Kernel we must first understand the founder of Kernel, Bryan Johnson, a 39 year old man who exemplifies the American entrepreneurial success story. Growing up in the small city of Provo Utah, he hustled his way around as a serial entrepreneur from selling cell phones to establishing a VOIP company. He came up with his biggest idea while working a part-time job selling credit card processing services to businesses. The end result was a payment processing company called Braintree which he sold to eBay for $800 million in 2013.
Mr. Johnson then took some of his proceeds and founded a VC fund called OS Funds. “OS” stands for “operating system” and OS Funds then set out to invest in “entrepreneurs who are working towards quantum-leap discoveries that promise to reinvent the operating systems of life“. OS Funds managed to do just that by investing in ambitious startups like artificial intelligence pioneer Vicarious, drone delivery startup Matternet, nanobot factory Ginkgo Bioworks, and Human Longevity which wants to extend the lifespan of humans. Not content to just rest on his laurels, Mr. Johnson then went on to sink $100 million into a new startup he started this year called Kernel which wants to do nothing less than augment the human brain with artificial intelligence. In August of this year, Kernel came out of stealth mode and posted this cryptic video on their website:
If you can’t be asked to spend 44 seconds to watch the video, here’s what it says along with some cool futuristic animations:
Exploring our universe is extending the life of our earth. Understanding our genetic code is extending the life of our body. And now, we are unlocking our neural code to extend the life of our mind. So, what will it mean to live?
Kernel’s technology is centered around a researcher named Theodore Berger who has been working for the past 35 years to learn how to store brain memories on computer ships. Sound crazy? In a recent interview with MIT Technology Review, he stated “They told me I was nuts a long time ago”. The article goes on to state that “Berger is shedding the loony label and increasingly taking on the role of a visionary pioneer“. If $100 million in backing isn’t a total vindication of Dr. Berger’s “loony label”, then what else is? That’s the equivalent to the amount of money Illumina sunk into Helix.
Dr. Berger’s research has moved across the spectrum from giving monkeys cocaine and seeing how they recall memories, to testing the memory process of people with epilepsy who have electrodes temporarily implanted in their brain. In the human tests, these electrodes were used to record signals sent to the hippocampus (shown highlighted in the below diagram):
Why the hippocampus? If we start to think of the brain as a sort of computer, the hippocampus is where short-term memories in RAM are converted to long term memories and then stored on the brain’s “hard drive” where long term memories are stored. It’s those long term memories that Dr. Berger is targeting. The ability to create a bridge between the hippocampus and a chip will allow for “memory implants” that can enhance the memory of those who are suffering from memory loss that accompanies aging. Since the way the brain works is often seen as a black box with 100 billion neurons firing away, Kernel is using machine learning in order to figure out how the brain goes about writing and retrieving memories. Kernel is actually using artificial intelligence to understand real intelligence which will lead to brain augmentation in the form of brain implants.
In an article he wrote on Medium about this incredible endeavor, Mr. Johnson states that the quest to enhance human intelligence “may be the largest market in history”. He also talks about he plans to “optimize for long term value creation by raising approximately a billion dollars from public and private sources” and that “each market approved product we create will require approximately $200M and 7–10 years”.
If Kernel can learn how to interpret the signals being sent to the hippocampus at 100% percent accuracy, then the “read/write” ability is covered. At the moment he claims to be more in the 80% range. Kind of like a 4-5 drink night out. If this whole thing works out, we’ll all be able to walk around with brain implants that give us the memory of an elephant and hopefully never have to worry about where we put our car keys. But that’s not all this means. Here’s where things can get a whole lot more interesting.
There’s been a lot of banter these days about the idea that we might be living in a simulation. The general idea is that if we can engineer our own simulations that are indistinguishable from our present reality, then it makes it likely that we are presently in a simulation. Then when Elon Musk came out and said recently that we’re almost certainly living in a simulation, everyone starts to think that maybe the idea isn’t so loony. If we think about what’s needed for this to happen in our present reality, virtual reality goggles aren’t going to cut it. You can take the goggles off anytime and you’re back in your living room.
The one thing that would make a simulation truly convincing would be a brain interface that would allow for every single one of your sensory inputs to be fed a stream of data. That’s the ultimate brain augmentation, the ability to plug a real-time data feed into our brain. That’s the direction Kernel is heading towards because if we can give the brain a place to store memories, we can speak the brain’s language and begin making it remember things that never happened, or forget things that did happen. Maybe psychologists are going the way of radiologists, or maybe we’ve read too many science fiction books, but some of the possible directions this could take are truly amazing to think about. This is exactly the sort of potential that led the founder of Kernel, Mr. Bryan Johnson, to state “We are at one of the most exciting moments in history“.
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