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The Entrepreneur with the $100 Million Plan to Link Brains to Computers


Tech big shots are charging into neuroscience, but do they even have a clue?
Entrepreneur Bryan Johnson says he wanted to become very rich in order to do something great for humankind.
Last year Johnson, founder of the online payments company Braintree, starting making news when he threw $100 million behind Kernel, a startup he founded to enhance human intelligence by developing brain implants capable of linking people’s thoughts to computers.
Johnson isn’t alone in believing that “neurotechnology” could be the next big thing. To many in Silicon Valley, the brain looks like an unconquered frontier whose importance dwarfs any achievement made in computing or the Web.
According to neuroscientists, several figures from the tech sector are currently scouring labs across the U. S. for technology that might fuse human and artificial intelligence. In addition to Johnson, Elon Musk has been teasing a project called “neural lace,” which he said at a 2016 conference will lead to “ symbiosis with machines.” And Mark Zuckerberg declared in a 2015 Q&A that people will one day be able to share “full sensory and emotional experiences,” not just photos. Facebook has been hiring neuroscientists for an undisclosed project at Building 8, its secretive hardware division.
As these people see it, computing keeps achieving new heights, but our ability to interface with silicon is stuck in the keyboard era. Even when speaking to a computer program like Alexa or Siri, you can convey at most about 40 bits per second of information and only for short bursts. Compare that to data transfer records of a trillion bits per second along a fiber-optic cable.
“Ridiculously slow,” Musk complained.
But it turns out that connecting to the brain isn’t so easy. Six months after launching Kernel amid a media blitz, Johnson says he’s dropped his initial plans for a “memory implant,” switched scientific advisors, hired a new team, and decided to instead invest in developing a more general-purpose technology for recording and stimulating the brain using electrodes.
Johnson says the switch-up is part of trying something new. “If you look at the key contributing technologies of society, the ones with the most impact, like rockets, the Internet, biology—there was a transition point from academia to the private sector, and for the most part neuroscience hasn’t made that jump,” says Johnson. “The most critical element is timing, when is the right time to pursue this.”
Memory implants
After making a fortune selling Braintree to eBay for $800 million in 2013, Johnson, now 39, reportedly sought the advice of nearly 200 people on how to invest his new wealth. He settled on neurotechnology and, last August, he announced he’d create Kernel and build the first neural prosthetic for human intelligence enhancement.
But Johnson’s business plan was extremely vague; one scientist called it “metaphysical.” Kernel’s website was plastered with book-jacket-like endorsements from scientific celebrities including J. Craig Venter and Tim O’Reilly, extolling his “great” and “serious” commitment to understanding human intelligence, not to mention the impressive $100 million he later promised to invest in Kernel.
The reality is that interfacing with the brain is tough: electronics irritate its tissue and stop working after a while, and no one will get brain surgery just in order to send an e-mail.

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