Hacking The Brain?



Neuroscience has become a hot topic. The brain has become an even hotter topic. It seems that as soon as you mention brain areas and their effects on certain behaviours people will take you very seriously. There also seems to be the general belief that as soon as we figure out how the brain works (no small feat) we can control a person, or humanity as a whole, completely. Visions of mind control, Big Brother and sci-fi-esque doom scenarios pass before my very eyes when writing this. Neuroscience is fascinating. But the hype around it is even more interesting.


Coming from this hype is Kernel. Kernel is a over 100 million dollar neuroscience start-up founded by Bryan Johnson. Who acquired that money by selling his initial company BrainTree to PayPal for 800 million dollars (hot damn). The mission of Kernel is to get people to implant computer chips in their head. The question isn’t “if” this is going to happen, the question is “when.” There goes free will and all that. Now it isn’t all bad. Kernel has stated to predominantly want to focus on medical applications. Their aim is to gain a deeper understanding of the how the brain can fail. This is a noble goal, and the monetary influx will surely be good for the field. However, there is a not-so-hidden agenda here as well: Johnson would like to “move toward augmenting the brain to make us smarter and healthier and pave the way for interfacing directly with computing devices.” Here we go… The idea of yet another to turn us into cyborgs. Why? Because, we live in a world that is soon going to be taken over by machines that continue to rapidly accelerate beyond our capabilities and understanding. I’m not kidding, this is a genuine fear which has fueled and funded multiple startups in Silicon Valley. Fear mongering aside, it should probably be mentioned that Johnson doesn’t actually have a background in neuroscience. But we’re currently in the Musk-era, so that doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore…


Back to “hacking the brain.” What is the idea then? Well, neuroscientific research (non-commercial) has looked into improving the brain by alleviating the symptoms of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. And in that case, bluntly put, putting a chip in your brain that sends out electrical signal can help. Johnson also mentions that these chips have had success with spinal cord pain, obesity and aneroxia, but that research isn’t referenced, and personally I have never heard of anorexia patients being treated that way (but who am I). Luckily, I, who also has a VERY limited background in neuroscience at best, am not the only skeptic in the room. Blake Richards, assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Toronto mentions that “frankly, the technologies we have for interacting with the brain are blunt tools at best, most neuroprostheses involve dropping a big array of electrodes into the brain.” Not exactly a microchip then, is it?


I am not just hating on Kernel for the sake of it. There are many more like Kernel, and I’m sure there will be many more like it. I’m just not entirely sure where this obsession is coming from. We hardly understand most human behaviour, let alone how the brain works and influences it, and now we’re suddenly trying to hack it?! I know this “vision” is both decades and millions, if not billions of dollars away. But still. I’m not entirely sure how eager I’d be to become a cyborg if it wasn’t a “life or death” situation. And that’s not the only qualm I have about this type of brain hacking marketing stunt. Because that is all it is for now, a marketing stunt. Keep in mind that we can’t currently do any of these things… Anyway, my second problem is the obsession of it all. Augmenting humanity, or at least its intelligence How detached from the world can you get? We have entire generations that still can’t operate a simple laptop. And we have entire countries in which households can’t afford one. From that perspective, this type of brain hacking augmentation seems like yet another fad of rich American hipsters who happened to study neuroscience to enlarge the divide between rich and technologically advanced individuals, and those who don’t fall into these categories. Oh wait, Johnson doesn’t actually have any training in neuroscience to begin with. Never mind.


I think neuroscientific research that focuses on curing or at least alleviating degenerative diseases, their symptoms and their causes, is good research. It’s necessary research and it will help and improve humanity. This research is going to take decades and millions of dollars. And quite frankly, I think it’s worth both. I hope Kernel focusses enough of its resources towards these goals before it starts trying to “elevate my intelligence.” In my humble opinion, you can keep the hype and stuff the brain hacking chips back into the freezer. Another time maybe. We’ve got more important stuff to focus on now.


That’s it from me today. Now, I’m going to quickly look up what BrainTree is. For 800 million dollars, it has to be quite something. Right?! Also, the quotes etc. mentioned throughout this post can be found here.

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