The Enhanced Future Brain
Kernel’s Mission to Shape Humanity’s Cognitive Evolution
Within a generation, we may have the tools to dramatically improve the cognitive abilities of the human brain, and in the process open up a host of capabilities our ancestors could barely dream about. Lucy Ingham hears what’s in store from Kernel’s Bryan Johnson
Self-improvement is a common goal of humanity. Many of us spend our lives acquiring new knowledge, learning new skills and – where possible – generally making ourselves more than we currently are. But when it comes to the brain, the idea of going beyond the boundaries of conventional cognitive enhancement can be a cause for concern.
Kernel founder Bryan Johnson, however, doesn’t understand this hesitancy.
“I don't understand what we are so scared of losing in ourselves. I don't know about you guys but I spend my life trying to improve myself and trying to fix the things that I'm not good at,” he says in a talk at Web Summit. “The opposite ambition is why can't we be more? What are we so scared about losing? What is it, what's at risk? “
Having sold his payments company Braintree to eBay for $800m in 2013, Johnson founded Kernel with a $100m personal investment and the goal of building implantable technologies to improve human brain function. And with cognitive enhancement, he argues, will come a whole new horizon of possibilities.
“What would it mean if my consciousness were a hundred times bigger or a thousand times bigger? What if I could love that much deeper, what if I could walk a mile in someone else's shoes?” he asks.
“What if I could do all these things that I want cognitively. To me the most interesting thing in existence is exploring my own experience and doing that with others. And I think secondarily is when I look at the future of the human race, I think that working on our cognitive evolution, specifically expanding it and evolving ourselves, is the single highest value thing we could do as a species.”
Building a technological toolkit for cognitive enhancement
While far more of Kernel’s work lies ahead of it than behind, the company has a firm direction that it wants to take, and it’s clear that right now, we are not at the technological level required to realise the true potential of cognitive enhancement.
“Look at the current state of neuroscience and look at the tools we have to work with, including MRI to image our brain; or deep-brain stimulation to try to adjust disease or dysfunction or EEG to help us meditate or for sleep,” he says.
“The basic toolkits we have to interface with our brains are not sufficiently powerful for us to really extend our cognition.”
The plan, then, is to develop technologies that will allow us to shape mental enhancement, which are likely to include brain implants.
“What I'm interested in the most is an advanced toolkit for us to be able to self-direct our cognitive evolution,” explains Johnson. “So for example the comparison would be in genomics where we've been able to sequence the genome and get it to a cost where it's reasonable, and now we have tools to both edit the genome and have the toolkit to ask all kinds of questions in fertility, and in disease and dysfunction and improving humans via genomics.
“I'd like to see the same revolution happen, but for our brains.”
The possibilities of life with an augmented brain
While this revolution is clearly still some way off, its potential is significant, albeit somewhat unclear.
“We, of course, can map out the familiar. We can go through our life experiences and say 'well if I could have an interface I could learn faster, or I could have a better memory, or I could communicate more efficiently brain-to-brain',” says Johnson.
What’s more, he anticipates this development to occur not far in the future, but in our own lifetimes.
“I would put the expectation at around 15 to 20 years, where we will have a sufficiently robust set of tools for the brain that we could pose any question we wanted,” he says.
“For example, could I have a perfect memory, could I delete my memories, could I increase my rate of learning, could I have brain-to-brain communication? Could I have interaction with AI that is real-time high-bandwidth?
“All these questions: I think that we will have a toolkit in that time period where any question you'd like to pose, we could venture at actually doing it in the brain.”
Will brain augmentation lead to enhancement inequality?
However, as with any technology that allows humans to be augmented beyond their biological potential, there are suggestions that such enhancements would be available only to those that could afford them. As a result, the wealthy would gain superhuman cognitive abilities while the poor would be stuck as regular humans, resulting in a rapidly expanding inequality gap that would become near impossible to overcome.
Johnson, however, does not believe this dark reality will come to pass, arguing that the technology is likely to be far more widely available.
“I think these tools will be democratised much like we've seen smartphones,” he says. “I think it'll follow a natural curve.”
This, he argues, would be the result of cognitive enhancements not being a luxury, but a necessity for the changing world.
We have no choice but to explore our cognitive evolution
“I think the bigger question on this is: is working on this a luxury, or is it a necessity? In other words, as a species if we imagine the future 20, 30, 40, 100 years down the road, what sorts of progress will be required for us to create an existence we actually want to live in?” he asks.
“I would argue that if we contemplate what the future holds in terms of the pace of technological change, the complexity of society and just basically human behaviour, which is consistent throughout our species, we have no choice but to explore our cognitive evolution.”
However, this does not mean that he doesn’t recognise a need to be cautious.
“With that, of course, comes a lot of sensitivities, and we need to do this right. In building technologies it's not a guarantee that things are going to go well and we have to be really thoughtful,” he says.
“I think we need to put safeguards around these things, for example infrastructure like the blockchain are really interesting in concept to marry up with neural data. So if I have an interface that is holding all my thoughts and emotions and secrets, I don't want that out in the world. I would rather have it in a locked-down situation where I give permission to others.”
The unknown future of cognitive enhancement
While the notion of cognitive enhancement carries many ideas about humans with improved thinking and memory, Johnson believes much of the technology’s potential will not become clear until it is implemented.
“The thing I'm most excited about is that our imagination is limited to the familiar. We can't see beyond it,” he says.
“[Imagine] if at the beginning of the printing press we asked Gutenberg: what kind of books will be written? The internet: what will it be used for? Electricity: what will it power?” he argues.
“We have no idea how technology progresses, and every time we try to predict that we're wrong. So I think if we build these tools that truly expand this cognitive capacity or we can explore this territory, I don't think any one of us could actually predict what's going to happen.
“I think 99.99% of all the most exciting things about our cognitive evolution we can't – we don't – know about.”