Mainframes to PCs. $1B genome to $1k. The brain and mind are next.

May 10, 2020

Hello Humanity,

What a fun week it has been! After four years quietly building, we pulled back the curtains at Kernel, revealing how our brain recording hardware will replace room-sized machines.

We’ve seen this before. Mainframes became PCs. The $1B genome became $1k. The brain and mind are next.

We also showed a fun demonstration: Kernel Sound ID, which decodes a person’s brain activity and within seconds identifies the speech or song they are hearing.

So, where do we go from here? Unlike our steps, calories, likes and followers, the technology hasn’t yet existed to meaningfully quantify our brains and minds in natural environments and at scale. The inner workings of the most complicated and consequential organ on the planet remains a black box…but not for long.  Consider this:

We live in a data-illuminated world, but the user manual for our brains has no biomarkers. The current gold standard, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), has not a single number.  Leaving us with no option but to describe cognition in hunches, not numbers.

Imagine a cardiologist explaining how your heart is doing with hunches. No electrocardiogram (ECG).  No blood work. Just asking you some questions about how your heart feels.  We don’t self-introspect to determine our cholesterol levels either.

When it comes to understanding our own and others’ brains and minds, we are in medieval times, stuck with self-introspection.

Of the little we can measure of our brain today, we build around it. For example, traffic signals are designed around a few measures, including the 1) limits of human reaction 2) physics of braking distance required and 3) needs of society, managing traffic flow. Blood-alcohol levels are another example —we measure this because we care about what it means for a driver’s impaired cognition.

However, we cannot yet quantify and characterize decision making, cooperation, emotion, attention, bias, or focus because we don’t have the numbers. Instead, we make guesses and rely upon hunches and hopes.

What if we could do better? What would such a world look like?

If we could quantify and characterize thoughts and emotions, conscious and subconscious, a Neuro-Quantified Era (NQE) would emerge. The foundation already exists to use numbers judiciously.

Perhaps in an NQE there would be “bumper lanes” for decision making, enabling us to bowl more cognitive strikes and fewer gutter balls. In new(ish) cars, when you want to change lanes but someone is in your blind spot, you get a warning that you are about to err.

Could we do the same for certain risks for anxieties, risks, or maladaptive thoughts? (There is already a stress relieving GPS app that directs people through rush hour traffic. Again, this is based on a crude cognitive proxy—a hunch.)

In a NQE, how would humans cooperate during a pandemic?  Or, how would we manage an existential crisis such as climate change….something that happens gradually – and then all of a sudden, doesn’t have dopamine feedback loops, and can’t be perceived with the five senses? A trio that is especially lethal to humans.

Future generations may condemn us for our mindlessness in using our god-like technology powers to encourage lesser versions of ourselves (ie. digital addiction, extremism, misinformation.) Our cognitive biases have held us back for too long.

Maybe a “neurome,” like our genome, would give us a blueprint of insight and plan for action. Could we create the needed bridge between our technology, science and institutions to systematically and methodically scaffold human progress?

Coronavirus has reminded us that human nature is fundamentally unchanged from millennia ago. We may find ourselves wanting to revisit first principles of what it means to be human to fix what’s not working.

Sometimes the worst events in life become the greatest learning moments.