What if we could radically improve human intelligence and treat mental disorders through neuroscience that connects our brains to the internet? It sounds like science fiction. But an entrepreneur from Los Angeles has a company working on it. He also wants to use technology to help solve climate change — and recently unveiled that vision during a talk in Seattle.
Bryan Johnson sold the credit card payment company Braintree to PayPal in 2013 for $800 million. Now, he’s investing in what he calls “deep technology” to solve society’s toughest problems.
Johnson set these goals for himself two decades ago, at the tender age of 21. Raised poor in Springville, Utah, he became a Mormon missionary at 19 and spent two years in Ecuador. He says the extreme poverty there had a huge impact on him.
“I was so moved by the experience, after seeing what these people would go through in their lives, at the lack of opportunity," Johnson said. "The most minor thing could set them back.”
So when he came back to the United States, he began to think, somewhat obsessively, about what he could do to benefit the largest number of people in his lifetime. He set himself the goal of becoming rich enough to have a big impact.
A PLAN FOR HUMANITY
Not long thereafter, he set about writing a Plan for Humanity, which Johnson readily admits sounds kind of ridiculous. But he says he spent a decade thinking about it, a year writing and rewriting it — going through 82 drafts.
“We plan for everything. We plan for weddings, kids, schools, degrees, professional advance — a death, even. But as we look to the future, we don’t have a plan as a species. We have not thought that through,” Johnson said. “And so I made an attempt at thinking through what a plan might look like.”
Ultimately, he wants to see people adapting to the challenges we face in the future — which he sees bearing down on us “like a Category 5 hurricane.”
“We’re moving very quickly into the future, things are changing very fast," Johnson said. "And that rate in which we’ve adapted to things in the past has been much slower than what will be required of us in the future."
He says meeting these challenges will most likely include uses of "deep technology" — a combination of hard science and technology to find solutions to some of humanities most vexing challenges.
Among the companies he sees becoming part of that future is Johnson's neuroscience startup, Kernel, which is working on enhancing human brain functions and bringing our brains online. He started out giving talks about it, explaining how he wanted to put a computer chip “in your brain.”
Now, Kernel uses external headsets that are less invasive, but still work on enhancement through connectivity. He says using technology to increase human congnition is part of what it will take to "maximally" increase the probability that the human race thrives.
Johnson also uses venture capitalism in his ongoing effort to solve the world's most challenging problems. A year after selling Braintree, he co-founded OS Fund. In its first round of investing, the fund bet $100 million on “entreprenuers, inventors and scientists who aim to benefit humanity by rewriting the operating systems of life.”
ADDRESSING CLIMATE CHANGE
Johnson recently gave a talk in Seattle, where he unveiled a new platform for using these ventures specifically to tackle climate change.
“I mapped how the companies we’re investing in solve the problems we’re experiencing in climate change," Johnson said. “So instead of me getting upset about a politician or complaining on Facebook or Twitter, people can invest in companies that are actually building the technology that solves these problems we’ve created for ourselves with climate change.”
Among those in his OS Fund is Seattle-based Arzeda, a protein design company. It uses genetic coding and DNA mapping to generate enzymes and other products of bioengineering.
“Which opens up a really large space for us to design solutions and biology we never could before,” Johnson said, pointing to more efficient agricultural crops as one example.
He added that Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, Berkely-based Lygos, and Skokie, Illinois-based NuMat Technologies are among other OS Fund beneficiaires that could help solve problems caused by climate change.
Gingko engineers micro-organisms that Johnson says can more efficiently produce everything from rose oil to jet fuel. Lygos is working on replacing petrochemicals with corn-based fuels.
And NuMat designs molecules, atom by atom; Johnson says the process allows for unprecedented gas compression and creating the smallest filters in existence, which can be used to contain the most toxic of all greenhouse gas emissions.
“These companies are all basically laying the foundation so they can do the things that we do today in a cleaner, more sustainable way, without costing — without poisoning the planet,” Johnson said.
And he says these ideas are not on the radar of most politicians and policymakers today. In Congress, where there’s a dearth of scientists, most proposed solutions address climate change through some variation of wind power, solar energy and electric cars. If society is going to have a chance at combatting climate change before the warming overwhelms us, Johnson says much broader thinking is needed.
“We need to be able to engineer every aspect of our existence: atoms, molecules and organisms," he said. "That’s the root level aspect to all of these problems."
Bryan Johnson is founder and CEO of the neuroscience company Kernel, and a co-founder of OS Venture Fund. He sold the credit card processing company Braintree to PayPal for $800 million in 2013. He lives in Los Angeles. He spoke in December at the Chicago Booth Alumni Forum in Seattle.