Can the Human Brain Be Hacked?

Tech company Kernel wants to improve memory with a “neuroprosthesis.”

November 20, 2017 10:00 am
A model of the human brain constructed of wires and ports. (Getty)
A model of the human brain constructed of wires and ports. (Getty)
Dwight Eschliman

Tech start-up Kernel, both on its own and in collaboration with medical professionals, is trying to hack the human brain. Kernel founder Bryan Johnson is developing a “neuroprosthesis,” a device whose uses are the very stuff of science fiction.

Johnson’s neuroprosthesis would, if all goes well, help people learn and retain information easier, develop telepathic abilities, and mesh with artificial intelligence programs. Another, longer-term goal is for different knowledge sets and skills could be downloaded directly into the brain through his device, which would be sold at mass-market prices.

While Johnson’s device is currently just an algorithm on a hard drive, he’s working on how to connect to the human brain through noninvasive interfaces, such as microscopic sensors or engineered neurons that exchange data through receivers.

Johnson tested his algorithim in a January 2017 trial on 25-year-old epilepsy patient Lauren Dickerson. Alongside neuroscientists from the University of Southern California, Johnson uploaded signals from Dickerson’s brain–transmitted through wires embedded in her head–to his hard drive, where his algorithm rewrote them as digital code before retranslating them back into Dickerson’s brain.

Johnson’s goal was to decipher patterns and processes used by the brain to create memories; once he has those, he can start enhancing them. Unfortunately, his part in the Dickerson experiment was placed on “administrative hold,” with allegations that Johnson rushed into the project without proper approval.

Johnson and his company face other, less bureaucratic challenges as well. The human brain has 86 billion neurons, and while neuroscience is figuring out the circuitry behind simple brain functions, the more complex stuff, memory included, is still a mystery. And because Johnson has no scientific background, the neuroscience community is very doubtful that Kernel’s ambitions will get any results.

“It’s as if I asked you to translate something from Swahili to Finnish,” said Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering director John Donoghue, describing the task ahead for Kernel. “You’d be trying to go from one unknown language into another unknown language.”

In other words, before Johnson can conquer memory, he might want to learn patience.


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