August 2, 2017

#4 - Hacking the Brain with Bryan Johnson

What does it mean to be human? And what would be possible if you had technology hardwired into your mind?

#4 - Hacking the Brain with Bryan Johnson

What does it mean to be human? And what would be possible if you had technology hardwired into your mind? Bryan Johnson is the founder and CEO of Kernel - a company building chips to implant in your brain to fix problems and improve human potential. Bryan was previously the founder of Braintree which sold to eBay for $800 million USD. He's now invested $100 million to make sure humans don't fall behind in our pursuit of new technology. Join us as we dive into the human mind with Bryan Johnson.


This episode of Moonshot was hosted and edited by Kristofor Lawson (@kristoforlawson).

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

And our cover artwork is by Andrew Millist.


BRYAN JOHNSON: Everything we are, everything we desire to become, everything, every problem we're trying to solve, every opportunity we're pursuing, it all begins with the brain. Everything. And so the fact that it is not a singular or among the greatest focus of the species, to me, is the biggest blind spot we have for the human race.

KRIS: Welcome to Moonshot, the show where we explore the biggest ideas in tech and the people working to make them happen. I’m Kristofor Lawson, and in this episode we’re diving deeper into one of the greatest Moonshots that you’re likely to find. The idea that you can integrate technology with your brain and mind.

KRIS: Now we probably all love the idea that we could one day be able to upload new thoughts or skills, perhaps a new language, instantly to our brain - and as we heard in our Hacking Humans episode - Bryan Johnson is one of the key people leading the charge with this technology… and he’s got a lot of his own money on the line.

KRIS: Bryan was the founder of online payments company Braintree, and now he’s founded Kernel, a company aiming to integrate technology with your brain.

KRIS: So how does someone go from founding a payments company worth $800 million US dollars to integrating technology with your brain. Find out as we dissect the grey matter with Bryan Johnson.

BRYAN JOHNSON: It's never been apparent to me that it would be appropriate to constrain what I want to do based upon my skills. Which I suppose could be a bad conclusion at times, but I've always thought that I care more about doing the things I cared about than artificially constraining myself and thinking that I could actually acquire the skillsets and the knowledge necessary to succeed in any given area. And so making the jump from payments to neuroscience has been a big one. Not just neuroscience, but all the things that we need to work on. For example, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, biology, chemistry, the regulatory environment. It's a really difficult task, but at the same time, I think, as an entrepreneur I've never felt happier in building anything in my entire life. It's incredibly difficult but I love every minute of it.

BRYAN JOHNSON: My name is Bryan Johnson. I'm the founder and CEO of Kernel.

BRYAN JOHNSON: We are building chips to implant in the brain to fix what's broken. For example, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, anxiety, depression are all things that have afflicted us personally or our friends and family. KRIS: Can we sort of dive into that a little bit more? Like what is... Is the healthcare sort of like main thing that you're hoping to achieve with that, or is it something more than that? Is it like a super intelligence?

BRYAN JOHNSON: Building Kernel is intensely personal to me for a number of reasons. One is my stepfather was recently diagnosed with early symptoms of Alzheimer's, and my father struggled with drug addiction for the first 25 years of my life, and I suffered from chronic depression for a decade while I was building my startups. And for the decade I was experiencing that I just had no desire to live. And I had three children and they kept me in the game and I have come out of it but I think everyone can relate with the experience in life of depression or anxiety or Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, and so I think from my personal experience, these things went from, "Oh, that'd be nice if someone solved them," to critically important to me. And so I think from a human quality of life, we all care about similar things of being happy and healthy and having positive relationships. And now that's coupled up with, what I really care about is the future, my future, my family future, my kids' future, everyone's.

KRIS: So what you're building, you're building this yourself? Your company is building this or are you sort of like investing in other companies? And what is it that you're building specifically? It's a chip? Can you explain a little bit more about what that does?

BRYAN JOHNSON: Yeah, we actually are building the chip at Kernel. So I am founder, I'm CEO. I'm actually building the company. I'm also the investor. I seeded the company with $100 million dollars…

BRYAN JOHNSON: We're building this technology first to address disease and dysfunction. So things that are broken. And I guess we're doing that for a few reasons. One is because if you look at the regulatory bodies around the world, it is socially acceptable to build technology to fix things that are broken. Not necessarily to improve humans. Like we have this general state where we say, "That's roughly a normal person” and that we should accept that as a standard. And so if we can bring somebody from substandard to normal, then we're good. But at the same time, all of us do a lot of things in our own power to improve ourselves. We drink coffee to feel in a better, to stimulate ourselves, and we read books to become better educated. We go to school, we wear nice clothing, we work out. We do all the things that help us succeed in life. The things we want to do. And having this chip to implant in our brains is a continuation of what we've always done, a desire to be our very best selves.

BRYAN JOHNSON: Now in talking about this, people… It's a new concept, so it takes time to socialise the idea. It's the same thing that happened with plastic surgery. So it was initially created to fix disfigurement, and now it's a part of our society where people proactively pursue plastic surgery to be their best selves. The same is true, for example, with trying to fix hearing with the cochlear implant, with the artificial heart. People do things to improve what's broken, but then it socially becomes acceptable in time. I think what we'll see is as we work on this technology in the brain that as we see the success in its ability to treat things that are broken, it will naturally evolve to expanding what humans can do. Again, to become our best selves in a broader way.

KRIS: Obviously, you know, people have issues with memory and things like that, but computers don't have that issue. So do you foresee that, like, chip connecting to, you know, sort of like a database of memories or something…

BRYAN JOHNSON: Sure. I mean what's exciting to me is if you take the general premise and we say, "Okay. Let's build a chip and we will implant it in the brain." I say, "Great”. We're going to try to fix the things that are broken in the brain. And then, because we're human, our imaginations immediately go to the familiar. We say, "Okay, well then how about can I improve my memory? Can I read seven books in the time of one? Can I have a perfect memory? Can I telepathically communicate?" Like we basically think of all the things we do today, we just say better. But what we're not great at is imagining the whole realm beyond the familiar.

BRYAN JOHNSON: So I think in the case of this is, yes, I'm equally as excited about improving my own self, and being able to learn faster and gain skills and communicate and be more empathetic and have a better judgement. These are all immediate things, which I think actually is interesting because if we contemplate what the world needs, like how do we actually succeed as a species? I would argue that in our current configuration we are ill-equipped to succeed in this coming world of rapid technological progress.

BRYAN JOHNSON: Working on the brain, it's the most epic and exciting adventure in the history of the human race because we simply cannot imagine the potential of where we can go. So a lot of people in this case will say, "Wow, aren't you worried about the ethics and the morals and all these things? Aren't you worried about a hacker getting into the brain?" Yes. Like, all those things are going to happen. Every technology creates both benefits and risks. And in the case of this, that's certainly the case. But it is not a question of if we should develop it, or should we develop it, we are developing it, and it will be developed. Humans have never been able to stop the development of technology. And so what we can do is be extremely thoughtful about how we do this. And so [what we're] focused on is how would [we] be the most thoughtful people possible in building this technology that positions us to actually create an existence that we all say, "Yeah. We're really happy with what we've built in the world."

KRIS: You are building this, so what's the time frame before this is, you know sort of, trialled?

BRYAN JOHNSON: A lot of people think it's really far out, but it's actually here now. So we're in the process of building this right now. We've been in humans and we'll be making some announcements about when we'll have our first products out, in additional humans, but the technology's here and it's now. And that's why I think it's relevant to be having these discussions. These things are very difficult concepts. Difficult topics to talk about. It's scary to some. It's exciting for others. We all have this mixture of emotions, and I think that's appropriate. But I would rather that we have this conversation so that we can try to start marinating in it and looking at the possibilities because we really do need this lead time to digest it. And what I think a suboptimal outcome would be is to not raise these difficult topics now. I'd rather raise the discussions and debate now so we have time as a society to kind of think this thing through. It takes us a long time to reconcile with new technologies and how we might use them.

BRYAN JOHNSON: When I imagine the year 2050, I cannot contemplate a scenario where humans are relevant if we have not learned how to read and write our neural code. It's an absolute necessity for the human race…

BRYAN JOHNSON: And so while we sit here and we say, "Well, [sure]. We never want to have technology in our brain for any reason," I think the reality is for us to be sober and say, "You know what? As a species, we really struggle to cooperate. We struggle to be empathetic. We struggle to make difficult decisions together. We struggle to be forward looking.” Somehow our immediate needs are the only thing in the whole world that matters. We can't think ahead 10 years, 50 years, 100 years. As a species, we are fundamentally flawed, but yet we just can't quite reconcile with that, which I think is the exact and most persuasive argument on why cognitive improvement is an absolute necessity. Not only that, but the most exciting thing we could ever contemplate.

KRIS: Do you envisage this then being just, sort of, like one chip and then just through software upgrades or whatever that sort of improves itself or that it learns based on, you know, your physiological response? How will that, sort of, aspect of it work?

BRYAN JOHNSON: We have roughly 86 billion neurons in our brain. We understand some basic things about the brain. For example, that these neurons communicate electrically and chemically…

BRYAN JOHNSON: And so I think that we know enough that, like, for example, you and I can have this conversation, we can move our hands and our bodies, we can form thought, we can create memories, that somehow the circuitry is helping us do that. And what technology we use specifically to get that done will change. So right now, for example, it's an implanted chip, but in the future we may figure out other technologies that don't require us to put anything in the brain. Maybe it sits outside the brain. And so of course, we're always searching for technologies that allow for the same objective that's just easier to use.

BRYAN JOHNSON: And so as we figure out better ways to do this, we don't really know what the next versions look like. Right now, the only way to get to the source code of the brain, the only way to actually try to read and write neural code, is to do an implantable chip. That's the only way. Now of course, you can do things outside the brain, but to me that doesn't solve the problem. The problem I'm trying to solve is what does it mean to be human, and what does it mean to survive as a species in 15, 20, 30, 40 years from now. And so that just requires a different approach, which is also the case why I've seeded the company with $100 million dollars myself personally, because if you go to the government, they're not going to fund this kind of stuff. If you do to venture capital firms, they're not going to fund this kind of stuff.

BRYAN JOHNSON: And so we have this really weird situation where the most pressing challenge facing the human race is not fundable by our capital structures. It takes someone like myself who can write a hundred million dollar check to try to initiate something like this and I think we'll find other individuals, mostly individuals, and some companies, who will see the potential and importance of technology to jump in, but to me, it's really critical that we start talking about this thing because everything ... Again, in talking about moonshots, every moonshot we're going to take begins with the brain. Every single one. And yet, somehow that has not been on our radar.

KRIS: From talking with Bryan you can clearly see that he’s someone who is not just pursing a crazy idea for his own selfish reasons - he’s actually someone who cares very deeply about the future of humanity. And the truth is he’s also not alone. Facebook and also Elon Musk’s Neuralink are looking at the way the brain can interface with technology. And that competition just makes it easier to talk about these complex topics and explain the importance of what Kernel is trying to achieve.

BRYAN JOHNSON: Now I started Kernel a year ago and it's been really educational. For example, when I first initially announced the company, I did it in the Washington Post. And I was apprehensive about saying what I was really trying to do. And so I said something very safe, I said, "We're going to build this technology. We're going to try to fix what's broken in the brain," and the response was like, "Awesome. Like that's really cool and it's cool that you're doing this." And then internally, I would say when I was recruiting people, “Like, look everybody. I think that this is the single most critical thing we could work on as a species." And I found people who were joining Kernel would say, "I agree. In fact, I've thought this for a while and I thought this was really fantastic." We're now recruiting based upon the story. And over the past year, I've been increasingly more open about communicating exactly what I think and I have found that people have accepted it faster than I ever would've imagined.

BRYAN JOHNSON: Now clearly, people have apprehensions. Like, these are topics that are foreign to us, which can create some anxiety, and I understand that. And I want to make sure we have this thorough discussion, but recently like, for example, when Elon Musk got in the game with Neuralink and Facebook got in the game with their stuff, I could not be more excited that they're in the game. Like it's the best thing that could ever have happened because now we have multiple people pursuing this objective. All of us are talking about it in our own different ways, which I think is introducing this to the world in a way where we're saying, “You know, it is time to explore these technologies and we hope they can be successful," but I couldn't be more excited that we're having this discussion. It's timely and we just need a certain amount of time to think about these things and debate these things and having them in the game is wonderful and I hope they both succeed because we need multiple players to succeed in this game. I just couldn't be more excited that it is now becoming a thing. It is becoming a topic of conversation and that we have them on the table so we can now debate it. It's a scenario that I just, I didn't even contemplate would happen a year ago. But I couldn't be happier with what's happened over the past 12 months. KRIS: How does this differ from what Elon Musk's company is working on?

BRYAN JOHNSON: So, Elon and I, I think, we see the world in a similar way. We both think that being able to understand and work with the brain is important. I think we differ in how we think about it though specifically. He hasn't spoken much about the exact things they're doing. I think you can probably conclude based upon the team he has, the general approach they're going to take, but I think he's generally said, you know, "We need to become cyborgs."

BRYAN JOHNSON: And I think my disposition is I think the most beautiful thing we could actually aspire to as a species is this… I come at this from a fundamental place of hope and aspiration. I think that our greatest masterpieces as a species have been anchored on hope and aspiration and not when we drown in fear. Now We have plenty of things to be scared about. Like, there's no question about it. We have enormous risks, but I think that, for example, the recent narrative in AI and others where, like, we have taken this really powerful technology in AI and we've said, "Everyone be super scared. It's coming to get us." I think it's a really terrible way to deal with the technology.

BRYAN JOHNSON: Now we know there's risks with AI. It could. It's a very powerful technology and its fundamentally, it's form of intelligence, and intelligence is the most powerful and precious resource in existence. But I think we can certainly… Just like there's risks on the internet and everything else we do in life, but I think that this dominant theme of fear has consumed society. What I don't want to happen is that as we start contemplating human intelligence, that a similar narrative comes where, "Oh, we should all be super scared because of this." I there's a way to approach this with aspiration and hope of what we can actually build together.

KRIS: You talked about the world that you see if we stayed on the current trajectory but assuming that everything works out with Kernel and with what you're working on, what's the world that you see in 20 years, 30 years, 40 years?

BRYAN JOHNSON: I have no idea. That's the thing. We cannot imagine it. What's exciting to me is that we now have a say what our world looks like in ways that are more powerful than anyone else. So previously, people could contemplate what kind of political structure do we want? What kind of leader are we going to vote it? What kind of crops am I going to grow? What kind of books am I going to write? But now, we ask questions like if we can programme genetics, what would I do with a human? If I could programme my neural code, what would be my cognitive capacity to love and care and remember and imagine and create? I mean, is it possible my consciousness could be a million times bigger than what it is today? Could it be the case that I could love my girlfriend a hundred times or a thousand times or a million times deeper? Is it be the case that I could a mile in someone else's mind? Is it the case that I could have so much empathy and would it be the case that our world leaders could solve problems in a more efficient way? Like, these are the questions that I find incredibly exciting. It's a game of what if. And so if we gained this ability to programme our existence through all these powerful technologies every what if question you pose if viable, and that's what's so exciting.

KRIS: What fascinates you most about the human brain and what have you learnt that you maybe didn't know before undertaking this project?

BRYAN JOHNSON: The single most interesting thing to me and what I am absolutely consumed with is what exists that I currently cannot taste, touch, feel, smell, imagine, create, and become. I, over the past year, as I've been working on Kernel, I can viscerally feel my limitations as a human. I've never felt this more powerfully. And I think there is this epic nature of what we're doing of what it could be to be human about our ability to love and connect and communicate and cooperate. Like, what could we really do? And that to me is the most exciting thing ever that a human could contemplate.