Silicon Valley titan Elon Musk has announced that he will be launching yet another company, Neuralink, which will focus on connecting the human brain to computers.
With his deep pockets and bold ambitions, Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, attracts attention whatever he tries. But Musk is not the first to experiment with neural prosthetics. In August, self-made millionaire Bryan Johnson launched a company that seeks to connect the brain with computer intelligence.
Johnson's company, Kernel, a Los Angeles start-up with 20 employees, is working to make "chips" to insert in the human brain. These chips, which are actually neurotechological hardware designed to read and write neural code, will be used at first for individuals with diseases or deficiencies to restore normal brain function.
In the future, Johnson expects the technology to progress so that even healthy humans can get chips implanted in their brains — and become, in effect, superhuman.
Implanting computing power in the brain could help humans have near-perfect memory, read books instantaneously and communicate with other implanted humans telepathically, or without speaking, explains Johnson.
For the first generation of implantable neural prosthetics, a neurologist will have to surgically implant the computer chip into a person's brain. The goal for the future, however, is to be able to implant chips into human brains laparoscopically and using other less invasive methods.
Johnson believes that our generation will be defined by the way we wrestle with the prospect of merging humans with machine technology.
"A generation's time and place is defined by the debates they have. So, for example, we have civil rights and human rights and marriage rights and abortion rights. I think the coming discussion for our society will be evolution rights," Johnson tells CNBC.
As a society, humans will have to decide whether it is acceptable to opt for genetic or neurological enhancement once the technology becomes available. Also, we will have to debate how those rights are managed and how technology is distributed. What will be legal? Who can access the new technology first?
Johnson expects the conversation to break on national borders. Some countries will allow genetic enhancements and others will not.
"There's a general reluctance for humans to adopt certain forms of enhancement," says Johnson. For example, when plastic surgery first became technically possible, it was largely feared and relegated to the fringes. Now, however, cosmetic surgery is commonplace, says Johnson. "I think we will see the same thing happen as we gain more powerful forms of enhancements in genetics and neurological enhancement and physical augmentation."
HOW JOHNSON MADE HIS FORTUNE
To launch Kernel, Johnson, now 39, contributed $100 million of his own money. That's not money he was born with. In his early 20s, Johnson struggled.
"I was broke. And I had two kids at home and I couldn't pay my bills. I was up to my eyeballs in debt and I couldn't find a job. I applied for 60 jobs. Nobody would hire me. Nobody would even give me an interview," he says.
At the time, Johnson emailed 50 wealthy individuals introducing himself, saying that he was a hard worker, smart and hungry for a chance. He got no responses.
Finally, Johnson found a job selling credit-card processing door-to-door. He was paid on commission. He pounded the pavement and broke all previous selling records, he says. He also came up with an idea for a business.
"I just found this broken industry in payments and I thought there's this amazing opportunity to build an exceptional company," he says. Johnson went on to found and launch Braintree, a credit-card processing company, which he grew and sold to eBay in 2013 for $800 million.
Financially liberated, Johnson was driven by his desire to make an impact on the world. He decided that unlocking the brain was the most noble and challenging goal.
"I arrived at the conclusion that human intelligence was the most consequential technological advancement ever — that everything we are, everything we seek to become, everything we create is a result of our brain," says Johnson. And our brains are fundamentally the same as they were a couple thousand years ago, he says. "On the other hand, we have this form of intelligence we have given birth to in artificial intelligence, which is improving very rapidly.
"And there's this huge potential to co-evolve with our technology."
TAPPING INTO A MULTIBILLION-DOLLAR MARKET
While it may take people a while to get used to the idea of implanting chips in the brain, Johnson expects that when the idea normalizes, the demand will be enormous.
"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," says Johnson, in a Medium post he wrote announcing his own investment in the company. He expects Kernel to raise $1 billion from private and public sources.
And while Kernel is not making any money yet, Johnson says if even one product goes on the market, it could mean billions of dollars in sales.
In the past two decades, Johnson has gone from broke and unable to land an interview to working in the same space as Elon Musk, arguably one of the world's most influential inventors.
As for competing with Musk, though, Johnson isn't worried. "I couldn't be more excited that Neuralink will join Kernel in this extremely challenging and promising pursuit," says Johnson. "The neurotech industry will be one of the largest to ever emerge. I'm happy others will be pushing the field forward as well."