Behind Bryan Johnson’s desk in his Los Angeles office, a playlist is written in marker on a large whiteboard. “My son,” the 40-year-old entrepreneur explains, “he was an intern here last summer.” The Kernel boss just has to turn his head toward the board to update his music. With his sleepy blue eyes, he looks at the track names, the songs of a new generation. It’s hard to keep up. Bryan Johnson may travel the world attending conferences and meetings, but “everything changes so fast,” he worries.
It’s a common refrain. In a complex society in which everything is always accelerating, predicting risk is becoming increasingly difficult. “When several things happen at the same time, people tense up,” he says. In the medium term, he thinks “we may not have enough drinking water or energy,” and, in a weirder vein, “no means to use smartphones.” But, from a young age, he was taught to come to the aid of others.
In the building’s basement, a team is working on “increasing our adaptability to cope with change and manage growing complexity.” This program, whose name may sound like a coaching session, intends to provide a highly scientific and technological solution. Johnson doesn’t want us to tire our brains out looking for answers. He wants to increase our brain power.
Since 2003, brain implant have been tried out on people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease to stimulate their memory. They send small electric shocks to neurons whose connections have been broken. But Kernel is working on a prototype that can do better. It reads cerebral signals. Bryan Johnson believes that it will soon be possible to map our cognitive activity and, ultimately, rewrite our brain code. “We’ve sequenced the human genome and we now have tools to edit it,” he says by way of comparison. “This raises a lot of questions. Can we make ourselves better? I would like Kernel to develop the toolbox that will improve the brain.”
Johnson says mankind is already augmented. By way of demonstration, he points out the smartphone I’m using to record our conversation. Won’t it help me remember this? Elon Musk agrees: in late 2016, he said technology had already turned us into cyborgs. The real problem lies in current human-machine interfaces. That’s precisely what Brian Johnson wants to improve.
With the help of small electrodes, the brain could retain more data without needing to rely on the external and fallible memory of a smartphone. But this is just a hint of his giant ambition. “Imagine if I were able to better understand you – your emotions, your thoughts?“Johnson asks, making reference to a kind of telepathy. “I’d be able to understand your questions before you’d even asked them, and understand the thought process that led to them.”
If that were the case, our conversation might certainly be richer, but what really interests Johnson is how that kind of understanding would increase empathy around the world. “It’s not our enemies we should try to destroy, it’s the concept of enmity,” he says. Kernel, by the way, doesn’t have any enemies. Similar initiatives undertaken by Elon Musk, Google and Facebook make Johnson happy. The more people talk about it, the more they’ll realize “the importance of the brain,” he says. And Johnson knows what he’s talking about.
Born into a Mormon community in Utah, Bryan Johnson was programed for heaven. “If you’re baptised at eight, that’s one point,” he says. “If you enter holy orders at 12, that’s another. If you avoid pornography, another one. You don’t mastrurbate? Another point. Going to church on Sundays gives you points too.” The road was clearly traced. But despite this clear trajectory, the young Bryan Johnson ended up taking a wrong turn early on. His father quit the church and his mom when he was just four years old.
With little money to spare, Bryan was forced to go to school wearing clothes his mom sewed him, but he still didn’t lose his faith. He wrote his father, an addict, constantly. “He would tell me he loved me 100 different ways,” his father recalls. “I’ll never know how he understood, as a kid, that the last thing you should tell a drug addict is that they’re a piece of shit.” After high school, this correspondence took a toll on Bryan, who then decided to become a missionary. He went to Ecuador with a single mission: to help the poor. But the church was limited in what it could do. At 21, Bryan decided he’d become a millionaire within the next decade to save the world.
“He came back from Ecuador a new man,” his sister recalls. Bryan Johnson read everything he could to help him reach his goal and sold phones to pay for his BA at Brigham Young University, Utah. Once married, he kept working, going door to door. He had three children. Despite being lauded the “best seller of the year,” Johnson failed when he tried to do business. So he decided to get a Master’s at the University of Chicago.
Braintree was founded in Michigan in 2008. This time, it all worked out. The idea was bankable, and Bryan’s father finally emerged from the depression that had plagued him. But then, either because of genetics or fate, Bryan was also swept up by depression. He slept badly, suffered terrible headaches and overate. He also started popping antid
“I tried everything,” he says. “I wanted better tools to treat my depression because it’s the worst thing that can happen: feeling hopeless, not being able to experience joy or happiness.” He pauses. “That’s the worst thing that can happen to you,” he says, weighing his words. In 2012, at rock bottom, Johnson challenged himself to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. When he reached the top, he broke down crying. He was brought down on a stretcher.
“A few important decisions” allowed Johnson to forget his obsession with death and return to the one he bore for charity. He got a divorce, left his faith and sold Braintree to eBay in 2013, which was then looking to join up with PayPal. Then, to make sure “nobody would have to live through” what he had endured, his brain shifted into full gear. But thinking wasn’t enough. That’s where the idea to improve the brain came from. Later, watching his stepfather develop early Alzheimer’s symptoms, confirmed his intuition had been right: “everything comes from the nervous system.”
Bryan Johnson decided to scale another mountain, this time consisting of books and documents. Among the publications concerning the mysteries of the cortex, he discovered the works of Theodore Berger. The neuroscientist from the University of Southern California (USC) worked with his mentor at Harvard, Richard Thompson, to determine the areas of the brain where memory is stored. In the late 1970s, the men equipped rabbits with electrodes to detect the activity of neurons. Each of these cells emits electrically charged sodium and potassium particles as they work.
Their presence, in the hundreds of thousands in the human brain, makes analysis complicated, however. In the 1980s, Berger, along with a colleague from the University of Pittsburgh, Robert Sclabassi, tackled a particular region: the hippocampus. At USC, a decade later, the researcher was able to mimic the signals sent by certain neurons on computers. “I started to imagine prostheses well before anyone else,” he boasts.
By reproducing the signals in the hippocampus, he managed to improve the memory of rats. In 2011, he demonstrated that the code with which memories are written can be captured, recorded and sent back to rodents. Five years later, Berger was attempting to use this method on humans when Johnson offered to help him. In August, he announced he would inject $100 million – out of the $800 million he’d received from the Braintree sale – to launch Kernel. Berger was named chief engineer.
They only needed six months to get USC Medical School’s approval and one of his patients, Lauren Dickerson, to get on board with the experiment. Eleven spaghetti-sized holes were then drilled in the skeleton of this 25-year-old teacher, and cables connected to a computer. Wearing a helmet made out of bandages from which emerged the cables, she engaged in a series of mnemonic exercises. However, the information provided could only come from 30 or 40 neurons, a Kernel scientist explained.
A few days later, after intensely studying the results, Johnson returned to the hospital to see if he could activate Lauren Dickerson’s memory by sending her the code. As he prepared to do so, a message from the university informed him that the experiment was over for administrative reasons. Later, USC explained that a misunderstanding had emerged between Johnson and Berger. The latter claims that the experiment was launched without his knowledge. Kernel’s boss contends that it would have been impossible for Berger not to know what was going on.
“The solution to all of our problems is to improve our cognitive skills.”
Berger is no longer part of Kernel’s team of 35, which includes 25 scientists. But the company continues its research on futuristic intelligence. Johnson does not hide his ambitions: “If anyone says they want to improve the brain, they usually have to start by trying to cure disease, because people think you have to repair what is broken first. Society has a hard time accepting the fact that you could create something to increase people’s potential.”
To Johnson, that’s the underlying issue. Whether it’s the environment, terrorism, conflicts or corruption, he believes everything can be resolved “by improving our cognitive capacity.” If non-invasive technologies – that is to say those that don’t require implants – make that possible, this miracle of science could even benefit a large public, he argues. Johnson somehow left one religion and founded another. Except that now, his ideal is before him, palpable, soon connected to us by cables with electrodes. The former Mormon has already scored some points in that regard.