As neural implants become more and more advanced, researchers think humans may be able to overcome diseases and defects like strokes and dementia with the help of tiny computers in our brains.

With the forecasted inevitable rise of the machines — be they robots or artificial intelligences — humans are beginning to realize that they should work to maintain superiority. There are a few ideas about how we should do it, but perhaps the most promising option is to go full cyborg. (What could possibly go wrong?) On Monday, a company called Kernel, announced that it would be leading the charge.

The idea is something straight out of dorm room pot-smoking sessions. What if, the exhaling sophomore muses, we put computers inside our brains? Unfortunately for prospective stoner-scientists, the actual creation of such a device — a functioning, cognitive-enhancing neural implant — has long evaded bioengineers and neuroscientists alike.

Kernel thinks it’s past time to make real progress. Theodore Berger runs the Univerity of Southern California’s Center for Neural Engineering, and he caught the eye of Bryan Johnson, a self-made multimillionaire who’s obsessed with augmenting human intelligence. With Johnson’s entrepreneurial money and Berger’s scientific brain, the two launched Kernel.

Berger has been questing after this advancement for 20-plus years, taking small but significant steps in the right direction. Back in 2012, Berger ran primate trials on his then-prototype implant. The implant detected the monkeys’ neural patterns as they played a mnemonic picture-matching game. The monkeys played the game for two years, and improved to about 75 percent accuracy. Each time a monkey answered correctly, the neural implant recorded what had happened in the monkey’s cerebral cortex. Berger and his squad then deciphered this signal and artificially introduced it into the monkeys’ brains as they faced their decisions. The cyborg monkeys did about 10 percent better. Johnson and his team tracked Berger down, and Berger, reinvigorated, joined forces.

A Golgi-stained pyramidal neuron in the hippocampus.
A Golgi-stained pyramidal neuron in the hippocampus. 

For now, Berger and Johnson are focusing on achievable goals with immediate impacts. They are creating an analogous human neural implant that can mitigate cognitive decline in those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and the aftereffects of strokes, concussions, and other brain injuries or neurological diseases. If Kernel is able to replicate even the 10 percent cognitive improvement that Berger demonstrated in monkeys, those who suffer from these cognitive disorders will be that much more capable of forming memories and living out enjoyable lives.

But eventually, Kernel wants to manufacture a bona fide neural prosthesis. While it’s lamentably years away, a true neural prosthesis would enable our minds to become computer interfaces. The implant becomes a sort of external hard drive inside your brain, improving the body’s already high-functioning operating system. For now, that’s a long shot, but Kernel says it is committed to getting “usable solutions in the hands of people everywhere.” And since it’s a private, entrepreneurial effort, as opposed to a bureaucratically handcuffed public project, you’d better believe that Kernel is serious.

Here’s Kernel:

“Machines of all kinds can help us along the way, but our vision is one in which we humans maintain and expand our authorial power. The advanced intelligence of tomorrow is a collaboration between the natural and the artificial. United, unheard of possibilities abound.”

When that day comes, privacy issues will go beyond anything we’ve imagined thus far. But, if current trends can inform the future, people won’t care about privacy. When people realized that Pokémon Go was behaving suspiciously, players decided that it was too fun a game to care. If neural implants have the incredible effects scientists like Berger say they will, it’s unlikely that people will care about the risks.

Photos via Wikimedia Commons, YouTube / MIT (1, 2)

Joe is a writer from Vermont who lives in Brooklyn. He has written for PopSci and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and spent a year playing with words and other writers’ dreams at Tin House in Portland, Oregon.