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Putting a computer in your brain is no longer science fiction

VENICE BEACH, Calif. — Like many in Silicon Valley, technology entrepreneur Bryan Johnson sees a future in which intelligent machines can do things like drive cars on their own and anticipate our needs before we ask.

What’s uncommon is how Johnson wants to respond: find a way to supercharge the human brain so that we can keep up with the machines.

From an unassuming office in Venice Beach, his science-fiction-meets-science start-up, Kernel, is building a tiny chip that can be implanted in the brain to help people suffering from neurological damage caused by strokes, Alzheimer’s or concussions. Top neuroscientists who are building the chip — they call it a neuroprosthetic — hope that in the longer term, it will be able to boost intelligence, memory and other cognitive tasks.

The medical device is years in the making, Johnson acknowledges, but he can afford the time. He sold his payments company, Braintree, to PayPal for $800 million in 2013. A former Mormon raised in Utah, the 38-year-old speaks about the project with missionary-like intensity and focus.

“Human intelligence is landlocked in relationship to artificial intelligence — and the landlock is the degeneration of the body and the brain,” he said in an interview about the company, which he had not discussed publicly before. “This is a question of keeping humans front and center as we progress.”

Johnson stands out among an elite set of entrepreneurs who believe Silicon Valley can play a role in funding large-scale scientific discoveries — the kind that can dramatically improve human life in ways that go beyond building software.

Though many of their ventures draw from software principles: In the last two years, venture capital firms like Y Combinator, Andreessen Horowitz, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Khosla Ventures and others have poured money into start-ups that focus on “bio-hacking” — the notion that you can engineer the body the way you would a software program. They’ve funded companies that aim to sequence the bacteria in the gut, reprogram the DNA you were born with, or conduct cancer biopsies from samples of blood. They’ve backed what are known as cognitive-enhancement businesses like Thync, which builds a headset that sends mood-altering electrical pulses to the brain, and Nootrobox, a start-up that makes chewable coffee supplements that combine doses of caffeine with active ingredients in green tea, leading to a precisely engineered, zenlike high.

[Tech titans' lastest project: Creating the fountain of youth]

It’s easy to dismiss these efforts as the hubristic, techno-utopian fantasies of a self-involved elite that believes it can defy death and human decline — and in doing so, confer even more advantages on the already-privileged.

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