The disc takes a long time to load—so long that we have time to launch into a conversation about his highly unconventional research plan. “Scientists have to be individuals,” he says. “You can’t do science by committee.” As he goes on to talk about how the US too was built by individuals and not committees, the disc drive’s grunting takes on the timbre of a wagon rolling down a rocky trail: ga-chugga-chug, ga-chugga-chug. “Come on, machine!” he says, interrupting his train of thought as he clicks impatiently at some icons on the screen. “Oh for heaven’s sake, I just have inserted the disc!”
“I think people overrate brain surgery as being so terribly dangerous,” he goes on. “Brain surgery is not that difficult.” Ga-chugga-chug, ga-chugga-chug, ga-chugga-chug. “If you’ve got something to do scientifically, you just have to go and do it and not listen to naysayers.”
At last a video player window opens on the PC, revealing an image of Kennedy’s skull, his scalp pulled away from it with clamps. The grunting of the disc drive is replaced by the eerie, squeaky sound of metal bit on bone. “Oh, so they’re still drilling my poor head,” he says as we watch his craniotomy begin to play out onscreen.
“Just helping ALS patients and locked-in patients is one thing, but that’s not where we stop,” Kennedy says, moving on to the big picture. “The first goal is to get the speech restored. The second goal is to restore movement, and a lot of people are working on that—that’ll happen, they just need better electrodes. And the third goal would then be to start enhancing normal humans.”
He clicks the video ahead, to another clip in which we see his brain exposed—a glistening patch of tissue with blood vessels crawling all along the top. Cervantes pokes an electrode down into Kennedy’s neural jelly and starts tugging at the wire. Every so often a blue-gloved hand pauses to dab the cortex with a Gelfoam to stanch a plume of blood.
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“Your brain will be infinitely more powerful than the brains we have now,” Kennedy continues, as his brain pulsates onscreen. “We’re going to extract our brains and connect them to small computers that will do everything for us, and the brains will live on.”
“You’re excited for that to happen?” I ask.
“Pshaw, yeah, oh my God,” he says. “This is how we’re evolving.”
Sitting there in Kennedy’s office, staring at his old computer monitor, I’m not so sure I agree. It seems like technology always finds new and better ways to disappoint us, even as it grows more advanced every year. My smartphone can build words and sentences from my sloppy finger-swipes. But I still curse at its mistakes. (Damn you, autocorrect!) I know that, around the corner, technology far better than Kennedy’s juddering computer, his clunky electronics, and my Google Nexus 5 phone is on its way. But will people really want to entrust their brains to it?
On the screen, Cervantes jabs another wire through Kennedy’s cortex. “The surgeon is very good, actually, a very nice pair of hands,” Kennedy said when we first started watching the video. But now he deviates from our discussion about evolution to bark orders at the screen, like a sports fan in front of a TV. “No, don’t do that, don’t lift it up,” Kennedy says to the pair of hands operating on his brain. “It shouldn’t go in at that angle,” he explains to me before turning back to the computer. “Push it in more than that!” he says. “OK, that’s plenty, that’s plenty. Don’t push anymore!”
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