Technology’s quest to measure, understand and control everything about our lives has stretched from our movement, diet and fitness levels, to our travel, shopping habit, money and even our DNA. Now we can add brain activity to the list.
Bryan Johnson, 42, is the founder and chief executive of Kernel, a company which is trying to downsize the expensive, cumbersome brain scanning machines currently used for neuroscience.
Johnson, who suffered for a decade with chronic depression, sees the brain as an untapped source of data and a gap in human understanding of the world.
“We can measure and quantify pretty much everything in the known universe, including distant stars, but also hyper-local things like steps and calories, even down to proteins and saturated fat. One of the only things we cannot measure in the universe is our brain or mind.
“If you can really quantify the mind and the brain at scale, at the individual and collective level, we will finally be able to understand, with numbers, the fundamentals that make us us, individually and collectively, in all environments, in school, at home, and our work and our relationships, across every spectrum of society,” he says.
Neuroscience as a business proposition has been pushed onto the mainstream radar mostly by Elon Musk, who for the past year has been teasing clues about his own company Neuralink. An update is due later this month.
Neuralink is a secretive company but appears to be focused on invasive implants, initially to combat disabilities and illness and eventually to elevate the human, giving us sci-fi capabilities like reading each other’s minds.
Founded in 2016 and based in Los Angeles, Kernel originally explored the option of developing invasive implants such as those already used to combat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but decided the external monitoring market was a better niche.
Johnson, a software entrepreneur who sold his first business to eBay in 2013, has put $54m of his own money into the company, and it raised another $53m in June this year.
His company has already carried out demonstrations including “Shazam for the brain”, in which the technology figures out what song is playing simply by analysing a participant’s brain activity.
The initial business model is to offer “neuroscience as a service”, offering other companies the ability to access data from brain-scanning experiments, which can then be used to improve AI inventions like voice assistants by examining the emotional impacts and psychological context of certain patterns of speech.
It could also be marketed to consumers or corporate partners as a way to gain a deeper understanding of one’s own mind and behaviour. Companies like Fitbit and 23andme have demonstrated the potential of tapping into our bottomless curiosity about ourselves.
Traditionally machines used to analyse brain activity are reserved for hospitals and are large and cumbersome, requiring entire rooms full of equipment and patients to spend long periods lying down or sitting uncomfortably still.
Johnson says Kernel has built a helmet offering similar functionality to fMRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and MEG (magnetoencephalography) machines.
This makes it possible to market brain scans as a consumer product, measuring someone’s cognitive activity as you might their heart rate, blood pressure or iron levels, and also to monitor them as they carry out tasks or communicate with others.
Johnson says one use could be to quantify the impact of processing a lot of news or information about a tough or stressful topic, like coronavirus, or to measure someone’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories or extremism.
“How much human cognitive capacity has been allocated towards Covid, and what does that do? What is the brain state of people when they get on social media?” he says.
Another idea the company has is to include a visual representation of someone’s cognitive state when they send a particular tweet.
Johnson admits that plans like this are “speculative” but adds: “We think it is all possible. We have very little doubt because there are basically a few decades and tens of thousands of papers that have been written using similar technical modalities.”
Sceptics have argued that the efficacy of brain activity analysis is overblown and we are in danger of accepting faulty and oversimplified evidence in our desperation to find answers to the great questions which plague the human race.
But it’s a large and growing field, and in recent years published experiments have measured how the brain processes other people’s facial expressions, what happens as someone practices mindfulness and meditation, and how intuition is formed and acted upon.
If Kernel is successful, it could court controversy in other ways. DNA testing companies including 23andme have faced an ethical dilemma as police use genealogical data to solve historic crimes.
If we can analyse thought patterns, it’s not too much of a leap to imagine a world in which companies like Kernel are able to predict someone’s criminal or antisocial behaviour.
Studies have shown science’s ability to identify patterns in the brains of psychopaths and people prone to committing impulsive violent crime.
In one 2013 study, scientists in New Mexico said they had been able to predict rearrests among adult criminals by having them perform basic motor skills while in an fMRI scanner. What would Johnson do if the police department came knocking?
“We principally are trying to align our organisation around helping people become their better selves. And it's difficult to say exactly what's going to happen, or how things are going to evolve, because these things are always a moving target, but our intent, our intention, is that it really is focused on the individual,” he says.
Johnson says the ultimate goal is an ability to transcend our human frailties.
“I don't think we've reached the apex of intelligence, or of consciousness. As a society I think it's possible that we may look back, even a few decades, and in some ways feel sorry for ourselves in terms of the primitive ways in which we went about and lived our daily lives.”