Bryan Johnson isn’t short of ambition. The founder and CEO of neuroscience company Kernel wants “to expand the bounds of human intelligence”. He is planning to do this with neuroprosthetics; brain augmentations that can improve mental function and treat disorders. Put simply, Kernel hopes to place a chip in your brain.
It isn’t clear yet exactly how this will work. There’s a lot of excited talk about the possibilities of the technology, but – publicly, at least – Kernel’s output at the moment is an idea. A big idea.
“My hope is that within 15 years we can build sufficiently powerful tools to interface with our brains,” Johnson says. “Can I increase my rate of learning, scope of imagination, and ability to love? Can I understand what it’s like to live in a 10-dimensional reality? Can we ameliorate or cure neurological disease and dysfunction?”
The shape that this technology will take is still unknown. Johnson uses the term “brain chip”, but the developments taking place in neuroprosthesis are working towards less invasive procedures than opening up your skull and cramming a bit of hardware in; injectable sensors are one possibility.
It may sound far-fetched, but Johnson has a track record of getting things done. Within his first semester at university, he’d set up a profitable business selling mobile phones to fellow students. By age 30, he’d founded online payment company Braintree, which he sold six years later to PayPal for $800m. He used $100m of the proceeds to create Kernel in 2016 – it now employs more than 30 people.
But Johnson, 40, says he is about more than money. He was raised as a Mormon in Utah and it was while carrying out two years of missionary work in Ecuador that he was struck by what he describes as an “overwhelming desire to improve the lives of others”.
His subsequent decision to leave the faith only added to this sense of purpose. “For the first time in my life, I had to sit with the notion that the closest I’d ever come to my previous vision of heaven is whatever we can build here on Earth while I’m alive,” he explains.
“And when I surveyed the landscape of human history, including how we treat each other and our shared home, I thought we have to do better.”