The Urgency of Cognitive Improvement
I recently gave a talk at the reCode conference titled “What If: The Next Frontier of Human Aspiration.” Focusing on the brain warrants the focus of the greatest minds of our generation — and now. Here, I want to expand upon those ideas.
Over the past several months, I have hosted twelve intimate dinners with some of the smartest people I know. At the beginning of each of these dinners, I would initiate a thought experiment:
What do we need to focus on today in order to create a world that we would love to live in by 2050?
With minor variations, I heard the same answers nearly every time — climate science, education, healthcare, AI, governance, and security. Not once, though, did any of the 150+ participants mention improving the brain itself. I was stunned by this. Why, I wondered.
Does it seem like understanding and unlocking the brain is such a difficult task, or so far away, that it isn’t even worth thinking about?
Everything we are, everything we aspire to be, every problem we want to solve, every opportunity we want to pursue — it all begins with the brain. It is the master tool and the master of all tools. And yet, it has not been identified, culturally, equal to its importance. But our bodies, our minds, our social structures, and our radius of empathy are all to some degree biologically determined. Even the length of a line of poetry or the number of simultaneous plots in fiction are thought to be responses to the brain’s limited bandwidth. What richness lies upon the other side?
When I think about 2050, there are of course many things we need to focus on. However, the brain stands out to me as the single most consequential area of focus. Improving it will determine how we evolve and adapt to our rapidly changing circumstances and be the master tool that drives everything else, all of which, currently lives downstream from it. In short, the future of the human race depends upon our ability to learn how to read and write our neural code.
There is also a heavily personal angle for me. I have both witnessed and experienced, from the inside, what happens when a brain isn’t at its best. Recently, being able to treat Alzheimer’s disease went from That’d-be-nice to Important-to-me after my stepfather began showing early symptoms. Helping people overcome addiction went from That’d-be-nice to Important-to-me after recognizing the impact of my father’s struggle with addiction. And being able to treat depression went from That’d-be-nice to existentially important as I suffered chronic depression for more than a decade.
So, I started Kernel.
There are difficulties ahead. Fixing the brain’s weak points in preparation for our increasingly complex future is a social challenge as much as a technical one. For example, the Pew Research Center recently found that 69% of Americans would be worried about brain machine interfaces for cognitive enhancement, a higher percentage than are worried about germline gene editing to reduce disease risk or enhancement via injection with synthetic blood.
Why might this be?
Historically, we tend to accept novel medical interventions when the risk is existential or the benefit profound. The oldest IVF baby is 39 years old. Eighteen adults with cancer in the U.S. today are walking around with CRISPR-modified cellular genomes. Worldwide, at least 120,000 people, for various medical reasons, already have deep brain stimulators which thread wires up from the body and into the brain to electrically stimulate target brain regions.
But what about when nothing is broken? When the goal is simply to become the best possible versions of ourselves?
One objection to cognitive enhancement is the desire to preserve our intrinsic state of normalcy. That we ought be as we already are. But imagine only the medicine cabinet of drugs used to either keep us awake or, instead, to try to put us back asleep. A reporter covering President Obama was once offered a sip of a Secret Service agent’s coffee — six shots of espresso, on ice. Which the agent got three times a day.
What if, instead of eighteen espressos per day, a brain implant could maintain arousal and vigilance by targeting the same adenosine feedback loop which caffeine, also, targets?
Each of us comes with an incredible set of natural abilities, but our bodies can’t do everything. Of the twenty or so essential amino acids, we can only make half ourselves and must find the rest in our diet. Imagine an individual where one brain region was unable to properly read the electrical signals from its neighboring brain region and that, as a consequence, the person has subnormal memory recall. Should we not supplement that region with the neural code to properly communicate?
In other words, how different is an amino acid from an algorithm?
The Scientific Challenge
My team and I are deeply motivated by the scientific challenge. There has not yet been an Einstein for neuroscience. Not even a Newton. Some might say, even, not yet a Galileo.
The amazing technologies invented in the last decades to peer into the human brain are doing just that — peering, as if through a keyhole, at this wonderous room where everything takes place. Whoever cracks the code of the brain, whether they are one of our children, or one of our children’s children, or maybe even someone reading this post, all I know is that they will need to be able to get inside.
Getting future generations to be as excited about visiting the inner hollows of the brain as they are the outer reaches of space is a challenge, but the payoff — to society, to the economy, to global intellectual capital — will be enormous. Computer programming is now de facto in primary education, mere decades after the introduction of the personal computer. It is easy to imagine that the same will be the case for neuroscience, mere decades after the introduction of the first personal cognitive enhancers. Hopefully it will be faster.
What my team and I are doing at Kernel, working to read and write our neural code, is to me the most epic adventure and could be the most consequential technology development in history. The possibilities are beyond our ability to imagine.
Of course, our first task will be trying to understand and treat diseases and brain dysfunction. But then what? Once we gain I/O access to the seat of consciousness itself, can we take what we learn as we help others and also expand the potential of the human brain? I am privileged to be able to wonder, dream, and run Kernel with the same query:
Some of the world’s best neuroscientists will tell you that many of things that feel uniquely human — creativity, empathy, attention — have biological limits. That they are constrained. Each of these limits, though, are they really limits?
What if I could read and comprehend in an afternoon those seventy neuroscience papers awaiting my reading? What if I could learn new skills five times as fast? What if I could correct for my biases, illogical behaviors and occasional lack of discipline? What if people of differing viewpoints could connect their brain’s emotional responses and reconcile their perspectives to build constructive solutions?
What if people, who run the world’s institutions, were able to better coordinate, cooperate and become more future literate to deal with the emerging complexity of society? What if the cognitive fatigue suffered inevitably by judges, politicians, doctors and CEOs could be better managed? What if I was able to control the timing, duration and quality of my sleep and attention?
What if we expanded the biological limits of empathy and care structures to include not just our loved ones and friends but, rather, an in-group eight billion people strong? What if my dad’s drug addiction could have been fixed? What if we could treat my stepfather’s Alzheimers? What would my mother do with her free hours?
The best argument for taking control of our cognitive evolution sounds, at first, paradoxical — that our present failure to imagine the benefits of cognitive evolution is precisely why we need it.
The Romanian chemist Corneliu Giurgea captured it well: “Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain.”
The Personal Challenge
I am excited for the world my children will live in. Their entire lives are ahead of them in what is an insanely exciting time to be alive. The uniqueness of the coming generations is that we can increasingly program any kind of world that we can imagine. We are the first pioneers in the age of self-directed evolution. Whether via bits or atoms, software, AR, genetics, biology or maybe even direct understanding of the neural code, we’re gaining the ability to program our futures at every possible level.
A few weeks ago, while putting my daughter to bed, she asked me to tell her a story and so I made one up on the spot about how a small house had magically appeared in the neighborhood while she was riding her bike. She encountered little people, a foot in height, and they took her to their secret, magical world, where eating candy was akin to eating vegetables, she could instantly transform into anything she wanted. She could be a slide, helping other kids to feel the exhilaration of fast movement; a flower, dancing in the wind, bathing in the sun, and flirting with the bees; or a mathematical equation. What would it feel like to be numbers, playing with each other, I asked? I explained the world in enormous detail. She was hanging onto every word.
Afterwards, my thoughts went naturally again to “What if?”. What if I could dramatically increase my creativity so every night I could make up, on the spot, tales whose creative genius rivals “The Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter”? Is creativity just an attention or memory bottleneck? Where in the brain is that being filtered? What if we find and correct for the bottleneck? What are the brain’s limits? Can we access its source code?
Accessing the Source Code
In building Kernel, I find myself thinking often about the recent film “Arrival”. In the movie, interstellar beings show up and basically say, “Hey humans, we need you to save us 3,000 years from now, but in order for you to not destroy yourselves and be around to help us, we need you to upgrade your brain’s operating system. Here’s the code. See you in 3,000 years.”
That movie hit home personally because I grew up in a deeply religious Mormon family and community. In this world, no matter what happened — war, the death of a loved one, a disabling disease, a personal setback — it was all going to be ok. Someone else was in charge. Someone else had control. I just needed to obey all the rules and everything would be fine.
When I left my religion, it was a jarring realization when I concluded that that there was in fact no one in charge with a master plan. In fact, it was my fellow humans whom were in charge. Yep — 7+ billion people, to be exact, successfully cooperating to achieve a pleasant future for this planet. With this new realization, I surveyed all my knowledge of human behavior, past and present. And I thought….
But of course, this is not how it will happen. I doubt anyone will come and save us. We’ll likely need to figure this stuff out ourselves. I’d argue that doing so is not only our right, and our privilege, but an imperative. We are the beneficiaries of social progress that’s been made over thousands of years and evolutionary progress made over millions. It is appropriate, now, that we start thinking about those who follow us not just one or two generations from now, but 3,000 and 30,000 years from now.
The tools required for accessing our neural source code are coming on-line, but we do not have a proper framework to discuss the benefits and risks. The tendency in such cases is to import analogous frameworks of normalcy, inequality and fairness from preexisting structures. The borders of fair play, for example, in areas as diverse as sport, war, and business prove that the tendency toward exploitation and unequal access to technology will almost certainly be concerns in the future of cognitive improvement.
Consider a simple enough question: What should be considered “fair play” in the development of a human mind? The answer, though, is quite complex. What counts as a tool? Children from higher socioeconomic indices do better on a range of cognitive tests, an effect that begins as early as three years old. Is a private school education a form of enhancement? Ivy-league-trained nanny? Adderall? Is poverty a disease or is a an individual’s lack of poverty cheating? Have we already given up on intellectual fairness?
The total intellectual output of humanity, though, has no finite bound. It is not zero sum. We have never before been able to pull the strings of our cognitive evolution.
Humanity’s greatest masterpieces have happened when anchored in hope and aspiration, not drowning in fear. I am reminded of the adage that if you want someone to build a boat, teach others to yearn for the sea.
Our expansive cognitive future is that sea. How will we get there?