Kernel’s Quest to Enhance Human Intelligence

Today I’m announcing a $100M commitment to Kernel in an effort to enhance human intelligence and reimagine our future. Unlocking our brain is the most significant and consequential opportunity in history — and it’s time sensitive.

We’re starting to identify the mechanisms underlying neural code and make them programmable. Our biology and genetics have become increasingly programmable; our neural code is next in line. Programming our neural code will enable us to author ourselves and our existence in ways that were previously unimaginable.

I started Kernel in 2016 (read more at the Washington Post) to build the world’s first neural prosthetic for human intelligence enhancement. The investment I’m making in Kernel today will expedite the development of this prosthetic and similarly transformative neurotechnologies.

Why now? Because the sooner we begin co-evolving human and machine intelligence, the better. The relationship between human intelligence and artificial intelligence (HI + AI) will necessarily be one of symbiosis. The challenge and potential of exploring this co-evolutionary future is the biggest story of the next century and one in which a closeness in development velocity is a necessity. In order for that to happen, we need to begin working on HI in earnest.

The next great frontier is ourselves

The brain is uniquely interesting for in it lies the essence of our existence and our potential. The tools that will ameliorate neurological dysfunctions and degeneration that affect billions of people may also enable us to enhance our brains.

If we can record and stimulate neural activity with high resolution anywhere in the brain, can we learn the language of the neural code and make it programmable? If we can communicate directly with the neural substrates of perception, memory, and decision making, what frontiers will emerge from our explorations and imagination?

Brain science is the new rocket science

Intelligence, in all its forms, is the most precious and powerful resource in existence. Whether we’re working on new forms of governance, climate science, curing disease, becoming a multi-planetary species, giving birth to and co-evolving with AI or exploring our own happiness — intelligence is upstream of everything else. It is both the master tool and master of all tools.

At Kernel, we’re building off of 15 years of academic research at USC, funded by the NIH, DARPA and others. We have our first human studies scheduled in the coming months. At this point, there are more unknowns than knowns in the science, but my team and I are sufficiently compelled by the opportunity and importance to begin the exploration and building.

This is a unique time in the history of our species because our evolution is increasingly self-directed. The progress we’ve made in human genomics, synthetic biology, and software engineering makes it possible for us to boldly begin exploring this new frontier.

It’s also a special moment in the coevolution of neuroscience and technology when we’re working at the convergence of several important trends.

Neuroscience tools are rapidly improving. Several robust efforts within the neuroscience community (e.g. BRAIN Initiative, DARPA NESD, Allen Institute, and HHMI Janelia Research Institute) have been focused on gaining a deeper understanding and building better tools for the brain. Research groups are galvanizing a generation of technologists to meet the needs of the field, and producing datasets that propel our understanding of the brain far beyond current models.

Machine learning has matured to the point where computer programs can outperform humans in the most challenging tests of pattern recognition and analysis. Using these tools to discover patterns and structure in neural datasets will spur neuroscience discovery and prove vital to achieving fluency with endogenous neural codes.

Microelectronics continue to evolve, producing form factors increasingly suitable to the construction of minimally invasive neural interfaces.

Finally, we’re making rapid advances in translational neuromedicine. Neurotech pioneers such as NeuroPace, which developed a chronically implanted device in the brain to quell seizures, have shown that companies can successfully take these devices through clinical trials to market, opening doors to treating neurological dysfunction.

As a pioneer in ushering in the reading and writing of the genetic code and the programmability of biology, it is clear to me that understanding the brain and neural code will come next. Twenty years ago most thought that reading the human genome would be a nearly impossible task without billions of dollars and a huge army of scientists and decades of time. The reality was nine months, $100 million and a small team. I expect the same will happen when we look back in twenty years’ time on Kernel’s efforts. Today’s announcement of a $100M commitment to Kernel by Bryan Johnson, in an effort to amplify human intelligence has the potential to be one of the greatest contributions to humanity. I couldn’t be more excited to be working with Bryan on his audacious endeavor.
J. Craig Venter Ph.D.
Founder, CEO and Executive Chariman
Human Longevity, Inc.

Our Goals

I’ve chosen to start a company instead of funding academic research or setting up a foundation because, as a for-profit endeavor, Kernel has the unique potential to give birth to a usable product that could benefit the lives of billions.

At the same time, the success of our endeavors at Kernel will depend upon the growth of a vibrant ecosystem of neuroscience research, tool development, collaboration and public and private funding. Many of the components needed to build a cognitive neuroprosthesis are already being developed by researchers or medical device companies. We’d like to accelerate this progress.

Every once in awhile, there’s an inflection point in technology that utterly transforms the world. The steam engine, the internal combustion engine, the electric grid, the integrated circuit, the Internet. Right now, a lot of people are betting on AI to be one of those utterly transformative technologies. Bryan Johnson has a different idea — that neurotech, the combination of human intelligence augmentation with AI — is going to be the real game changer. And he’s putting his money where his mouth is. I’m betting that he’s right.
Tim O’Reilly
CEO O’Reilly Media

Human Intelligence (HI) may be the largest market in history

The market for implantable neural prosthetics including cognitive enhancement and treatment of neurological dysfunction will likely be one of if not the largest industrial sectors in history. Now is the right time to start building.

Given the frontier nature of the science, multi-year product cycles, and the competitive advantages achieved from longer term expertise accrual, Kernel will optimize for long term value creation by raising approximately a billion dollars from public and private sources. Over the past few years, public interest and funding of neuroscience has increased, a trend we expect to continue, alleviating some of the private sector burden.

Based upon historical comparables, each market approved product we create will require approximately $200M and 7–10 years. A multi-product approach staged over multiple years optimizes for expertise accumulation and technological and scientific breakthroughs. A single product success would create billions in market value.

In addition to our commercial efforts at Kernel, OS Fund, which I started in 2014 with $100M of personal capital, will begin investing in neurotech. The OS Fund will also continue investment in world changing technologies such as genomics, synthetic biology and AI, all of which are complementary to neurotech.

Summary

Enhancing human intelligence is a complex and challenging endeavor on many fronts: scientific, ethical, social, and commercial, but as with any frontier, great possibilities and incredible achievements have always emerged from the shadows of the unknown.

With our increasingly powerful tools of creation, we’re capable of building all the futures humanity has ever imagined in speech, literature, art, music and private ruminations. We live in epic times: the future of humanity is now ours to create, together.

Bryan Johnson
Kernel, Founder and CEO
kernel.co

Join the Expedition!

Join Kernel. Brain Science is the New Rocket Science.

Learn more about OS Fund’s world shaping technology investments

What others are saying:

The announcement of this investment by Bryan Johnson is one of the greatest and most serious commitments made to date toward understanding the basis of human intelligence (HI), and toward developing the technologies to interact with HI. The outcome will certainly be extraordinary, and couldn’t have been more timely given the current state of neuroscience, engineering, and medicine.
Ted Berger
Professor of Biomedical Engineering
David Packard Chair of Engineering
Director, Center for Neural Engineering
CSO, Kernel

By fostering an ecosystem interested in ground-truth understanding of the brain, as well as radical physical interfaces, Bryan’s investment will help bridge the gap between artificial and human intelligence, ultimately galvanizing new frontiers in creativity and imagination.
Ed Boyden, Ph. D.
Leader, Synthetic Neurobiology Group
Associate Professor, MIT Media Lab and McGovern Institute,
Departments of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Co-Director, MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering
New York Stem Cell Foundation-Robertson Investigator
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Kernel’s ambitious endeavor is timely and exciting. We are at a turning point where coordinated, large-scale efforts in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and brain-machine interfaces could result in a significant enhancement of human intelligence.
Jose M. Carmena
Professor of Electrical Engineering and Neuroscience
University of California-Berkeley

Few endeavors will be as impactful, as far-reaching, and as transformative as decoding the operating system of the human brain. When that happens, we will transcend our reliance on the hand of cards we’re dealt, and be able to define our own trajectories into the future.
David Eagleman, PhD, Neuroscientist at Stanford, NY Times bestselling author, creator & host of PBS’s The Brain

Understanding the human mind is the last great frontier of science. Kernel’s plan to bring together basic science and industry to improve human intelligence has immense consequences both for the treatment of human disease and, most importantly, for the future of our children.
Robert T. Knight, M.D.
Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience
UC Berkeley

The Brain initiative is giving us the techniques to efficiently interface with brain. It takes a dedicated company like Kernel to make the enabled products.
Konrad Kording
Professor of Physiology, Applied Mathematics, and Biomedical Engineering
Northwestern University

I’m confident that Kernel’s goal, of great importance to humanity, can be achieved through neuroengineering and neuroscience.
Charles Liu, MD, PhD
Professor of Clinical Neurological Surgery
Director, USC Neurorestoration Center

This is an exciting ‘moonshot’ endeavor that comes at exactly the right time: we are at a convergence of developments in technology, AI and neuroscience that will enable big strides in the next decade.
Michel M. Maharbiz
Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Berkeley College of Engineering

The human brain is the ultimate frontier. If we can crack the code, we can reduce the suffering of billions around the world, and create new ideas to benefit billions more.
Ramez Naam
Computer Scientist and Author of Nexus

Every once in awhile, there’s an inflection point in technology that utterly transforms the world. The steam engine, the internal combustion engine, the electric grid, the integrated circuit, the Internet. Right now, a lot of people are betting on AI to be one of those utterly transformative technologies. Bryan Johnson has a different idea — that neurotech, the combination of human intelligence augmentation with AI — is going to be the real game changer. And he’s putting his money where his mouth is. I’m betting that he’s right.
Tim O’Reilly
CEO O’Reilly Media

As a pioneer in ushering in the reading and writing of the genetic code and the programmability of biology, it is clear to me that understanding the brain and neural code will come next. Twenty years ago most thought that reading the human genome would be a nearly impossible task without billions of dollars and a huge army of scientists and decades of time. The reality was nine months, $100 million and a small team. I expect the same will happen when we look back in twenty years’ time on Kernel’s efforts. Today’s announcement of a $100M commitment to Kernel by Bryan Johnson, in an effort to amplify human intelligence has the potential to be one of the greatest contributions to humanity. I couldn’t be more excited to be working with Bryan on his audacious endeavor.
J. Craig Venter Ph.D.
Founder, CEO and Executive Chariman
Human Longevity, Inc.