Driving Human Performance

My partners and I at JAZZ Venture Partners believe that all human beings possess vast untapped potential. That includes everyone from Olympians and CrossFit champions to any individual trying to achieve a goal. We were excited to be involved in the $9 million Series A funding round for Halo Neuroscience, a company pioneering the use of neurostimulation to boost athletic performance, treat injuries, and even help rehabilitate stroke patients. It is always thrilling to see ideas that have fascinated the scientific community moving beyond research and getting to people that will see tangible lifestyle benefits from those innovations — which is exactly what Halo is working to do.

Our confidence in this technology and in Halo is based on the capabilities of Co-Founder and Chief Executive Dr. Daniel Chao, a serial entrepreneur and neuroscientist, and Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder Dr. Brett Wingeier, a clinical scientist and biomedical engineer. This duo has created a training tool that can uplevel performance for a wide range of athletes. Chao and Wingeier previously spent more than a decade together at NeuroPace, where they developed the world’s first implanted, responsive neurostimulator for epilepsy treatment. After nearly 15 years of work, this device was unanimously approved by the FDA in 2013, which is a very challenging consensus to achieve.

The company’s first device, Halo Sport, doubles as a set of headphones which promote rapid gains in strength and motor skills for elite athletes. The headset delivers pulses of energy to the brain’s motor cortex (a technology known as transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS), optimizing connections between the brain and the muscles when paired with an intense workout. This non-invasive and non-pharmacologic approach to neurostimulation represents just the start of a brain training device market expected to rise to $8.79 billion by 2020, according to a report by Grand View Research.

We are at a unique point in history when it comes to the brain. Research and technology breakthroughs have made it possible to use what we know about brain plasticity and marry that with products that influence the electrical activity of the brain — unleashing its untapped potential. As a neurosurgeon and entrepreneur, I have experience helping many early stage companies thrive and become successful market leaders. JAZZ’s investment in Halo shows just how confident we are in Chao and Wingeier, their technology, and Halo’s ability to capitalize on demand from athletes for safe and effective neurotechnology.

But we are not the only ones excited by what Halo is doing. Three Major League Baseball and two National Basketball Association teams are using Halo Sport during spring training. The United States Ski & Snowboard Association (USSA) measured notable improvements after completing a Halo Sport program aimed at increasing agility and power of ski jumps, which are determining factors in competition. Compared with a control group, ski jumpers that used Halo Sport improved their propulsion force by 1.7x over the control group, and increased the smoothness of their jumps by 1.8x over control. Halo has also partnered with Invictus — one of the nation’s most well-regarded CrossFit training programs — to help prepare their athletes for the 2016 CrossFit Open.

These are impressive numbers, but based on my familiarity with the scientific literature on tDCS, the results are well within our expectations. The brain is powerful, and Halo is helping to tap that power.

I am also eagerly anticipating how this technology could one day help stroke victims. Halo is already conducting research into how to accelerate their rate of recovery at The Medical University of South Carolina.

At JAZZ Venture Partners, we are actively investing in companies that are creating the fundamental building blocks of a future where we direct many of the experiences that make us who we are. We want to create powerful, new customized experiences that will impact the brain and shape us, just like “real” experiences. What this leads to is a notion that the brain is the next programmable platform. Just like programmers can code machines to determine their function and outputs, we can program the brain with the experiences that shape its development. Halo Sport is at the forefront of such efforts to to unlock athletes’ full potential. We are thrilled to be driving such change.

Virtual Reality is Neuroactive: An Experiental Technology for Programming Perception

The information age has created a pressing need for us to speed up and improve the accuracy of how we exchange information and process it into knowledge. How can we most efficiently impart knowledge to others? How can we accelerate learning? Experiential technologies such as virtual and augmented reality will help unlock our own potential and that of the population around us.

Perceptual awareness engenders knowledge creation

Is that loud boom and sudden flash an explosion — or just thunder and lightning nearby? The human brain and mind continuously process the intake from our surroundings. Data streams of light, sound, pressure, and vibration enter our sensorium and are immediately and often autonomously processed by the brain into perceptions. Perceptions then enable the transformation of that information into knowledge. And, in turn, knowledge expands our potential as human beings.

Perception is a key node in this system that we able to proactively tap into in powerful new ways. Experiential technology such as virtual reality is the means of intervention.

Virtual reality imparts specific and potent information into the sensorium that the brain subsequently processes. Unlike the ephemeral or chance nature of many real world experiences, virtual information can be programmed and presented to the brain in carefully selected and reproducible ways to precisely impact perceptions.  These programmed perceptions can allow for new modalities for accelerated knowledge acquisition.

Perceptual shifts enabled by virtual reality can create empathy

Recent scientific studies have shown that virtual reality can create empathy by altering the perceptions that individuals have for others by changing their sex or race in virtual reality. Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford University is studying how virtual reality can generate empathy for individuals with disabilities in his Virtual Human Interaction Lab. His work and that of others have also studied how to foster empathy in a variety of scenarios, such as environmental issues. For example, empathy can be engendered for deforestation by having individuals experience cutting down trees in virtual reality and ocean pollution by virtually swimming as a fish through dirty water.

As we begin to think about the brain as a programmable platform, virtual reality is a useful and efficient development engine. Virtual reality is a neuroactive technology that allows us to selectively alter and enhance perception in rapid and profound ways. The careful development of virtual reality software that is informed by and infused with neuroscience can expand our capabilities for empathy and will have a transformative effect on society.


The Brain is the Next Programmable Platform: The Emerging Experiential Economy

Human beings are unique in our ability to create, share, and be transformed by experiences.  From the day we are born, our brains crave inputs. These experiential inputs shape us into who we are. From the first contact with our mothers’ eyes and smiles, to the day the electrical activity in our brains ceases, we become the sum total of every experience we have ever known.

Our experiences impact our brains in many ways. Years of cumulative experience in the form of formal education can enhance our capabilities and help us realize the potential of our developing minds. On the the other hand, a single horrifying experience, such as bearing witness to trauma, can alter the chemistry of our brains in radical, sudden, and deleterious ways, a phenomenon known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Most of the experiences that shape us as individuals in society have historically been delivered to us in characteristic and predictable ways: schools, communities, religious activities, families, relationships, work, illnesses, and entertainment.

The experiential economy

At an accelerating pace, however, our interactions with digital platforms such as internet-connected mobile phones and virtual reality are enabling us to create powerful new customized experiences that will impact the brain and shape us just like “real” experiences. The more that virtual experiences become indiscernible from other more traditional experiences, the more valuable they will become. As value accrues, we will be increasingly motivated to manufacture and monetize these experiences. We will as individuals and societies create, buy, sell, trade, hedge, and innovate these new experiences over time. This will form the basis for the experiential economy that we are now entering.

The information age brought us to where we are today. We are quickly careening from a scenario in which we are awash with information to one where the information technology begets novel ways to experience the world. The experience of life before the Internet is a different experience than it is for us after ubiquitous and instant access to the world’s information. While those in America with short term memories and continuous technology creep may be less certain of this, one only needs to ask a person in sub-Saharan Africa with a cell phone to confirm this fact.

In most Western societies, we now may be at the point for many where marginal increases in information flow are less impactful than the way that such information can be synthesized into new or improved experiences in life. The primary purpose of information is becoming more about how it is being crafted into new experiences to shape how we approach the world and who we become as people and societies.

The brain is the next programmable platform

My partners and I at JAZZ Venture Partners are actively investing in companies that are the building the fundamental building blocks of this future world of the experiential economy. The amount of innovation in this sphere, and the pace of change, is staggering.

What this leads to is a notion that the brain is the next programmable platform. We are at a point as a species where we are beginning to program our brains with experiences to shape our development and essence, just like programmers can code machines to determine their function and outputs.

Of course there is good and evil in all human endeavors. But it is important to pause, take a deep breath, and realize that this transformation is a net positive: We are at the beginning of the largest saltatory leap in the evolution of our species. We will soon have the ability to unlock the full potential that exists in our brains — on demand.

Neurocompetitive advantage

So rather than worry that computers and robots are replacing us in certain activities, it is more productive to realize that we are now about to start programming our own brains to make us even smarter, more productive, and less susceptible to illness and age-related decline. We are entering into a phase of human existence that will be reflected historically as the era of the rise of the neurocompetitive advantage, as coined by my investment partner Zack Lynch.

This neurocompetitive advantage will be conferred to us as a species, as nation states, and as groups, corporations, and individuals. The arms race that is ensuing is the development of technology platforms such as virtual and augmented reality, neurosensing and neurosignaling, and deep learning and artificial intelligence algorithms. The fuel that powers these technologies as a neurocompetitive advantage in the experiential economy is neuroscience.

Our understanding of our brains enables us to juice these technologies to create broader, deeper, more interactive, and more realistic experiences that program the brain in adaptive and productive ways. This is the next step in our evolution as a species and as global societies.

Metaverse = Virtual Reality + Internet + Neuroscience

The next expansion of the human race is into the metaverse. Not long ago, the Internet launched us into cyberspace. Now virtual reality (VR) is enabling us to travel though it into the metaverse.

In the metaverse, human beings will increase their realm of discourse and interaction beyond our current perceptions of physical space and time. The metaverse, while seemingly virtual due to its entirely human and non-physical construct, will quickly become indiscernible in many ways from reality itself as we know it today.

As human beings, our personhood is defined by the cumulative collection of our memories and our present thoughts. Our experiences in the metaverse will soon become part of our expanded reality. As we process and store those experiences in our minds, many will become indistinguishable from other experiences. Our brains won’t know the difference.

The journey will shape us

When this convergence happens, individuals and society as a whole will be permanently shaped by the metaverse. The metaverse will influence our collective consciousness and become part of our living history as people and as a species. It will be as if we landed on a new planet and began a society there. We will bring vestiges of the old into a new uncharted territory for human experience.

There is also no doubt that a future society as it will exist in the metaverse will become an influential part of the story of the human race. Our experiences in the metaverse will shape the society that we currently know. The trajectory of the human race will be altered.

The crucial difference between our expansion into the metaverse and a colonization of a far-away planet is one of cycle time. We will be able to seamlessly transport ourselves in and out of the metaverse freely and in real time. For this reason, the pace of change and social evolution in the metaverse will be as quick as our brains can adapt – and will therefore influence our worldly existence nearly in real time.

Neuroscience will be our guide

The seamless connectivity of the Internet has already become a basic backdrop and enabling technology. Virtual reality (VR) technology is the fundamental transportation system that enables us to see and be present in the metaverse. But our ultimate experience of the metaverse will be the inputs and outputs of these travels and experiences as processed and perceived by our brains.

The human brain, from a learning and memory perspective, and an emotional one, will be incapable of discerning between certain experiences in the current universe and the future metaverse. It is therefore critical that we approach our exploration of the metaverse armed and informed by the apt and stabilizing introspection afforded by neuroscience.

We need to consider how new experiences in the metaverse will shape our brains and minds. If we intend to maximize human performance, we will need to consider how this new environment will accelerate learning, push our cognitive capabilities, and force new experiences of empathy. When both computer and neural processing co-exist in a simultaneous and unified way in the metaverse and life as we currently know it, the metaverse and “real life” will become one. This fused state will simply become our new universe.

Don’t fear, transcend

Much as been contemplated about singularity – and concerns have been raised about the potential dangers of where artificial intelligence will take us in the future and in the metaverse. I don’t fear it. I believe that our destiny as human beings is a continued expansion of our cognitive and empathic capabilities such that we discover heightened abilities to maximize who we are and what we can do for each other. Many people have sought, and some have achieved, this transcendence. Experiential neurotechnology will enable more of us to transform ourselves in this way: “Had we but world enough, and time…”

The Experiential Technology Zenith: The Empathy Machine

My friend Zack Lynch, author of The Neuro Revolution, said something to me the other day that stopped me in my tracks. It was one of those satori moments, a thunderclap. “You know,” he said, “in the future, human beings will evolve as a society because of the empathy machine.” Those two words, juxtaposed, illuminated a mental puzzle, a koan, that I had been wrestling with for a long time.

Let me explain: We live in an ever more complex world. Separations between the fortunate and the less fortunate have never been larger. Those whose cultures are more traditional see an even bigger chasm between themselves and those who are pressing at the margins of a future society. We continue to celebrate a more multicultural society at the same time that we witness the injustices of the day-to-day affairs of living in it.

The paradox of technology

No doubt, technology is accelerating society’s pace of change and extending our capabilities. At the same time that we delight in making a hotel reservation across the world from a cell phone, we are frustrated by the distance these same technologies can create between individuals living in the same home. We see the power of the technology to give us autonomy, but we fear the automation of our lives and our human interactions themselves.

We are quickly but almost imperceptibly moving into a machine age where blistering computer speed clearly supersedes analog human processing. Human judgment in many cases is better substituted by algorithmic magic. We know that we benefit from the literal and figurative autopilots on airplanes and robots on the assembly lines yet we strive to amplify the roles where humans clearly excel: discerning, contextualizing, and understanding human emotions and interactions.

Against the computational backdrop of daily life, neuroscience discoveries continue to unlock the potential for human performance improvements in our cognitive capabilities and our ability to better understand ourselves. We have discovered ways to enhance our cognition and accelerate learning. We recognize the value of striving to be our best and to deliver to our families and our world our most prized assets – our attention, our thoughts, and our feelings. We also have the feedback loop of being able to see all of the individual human data points play out in real time in social media — a large scale neural network of our collective consciousness.

A human performance imperative: empathy

Technology relentlessly infuses our lives and our minds. We exercise our bodies and our brains to increase our productivity while at the same time trying to keep our command and edge over the very technology that further enables us. So where does this ultimately take us? It takes us to Zack’s empathy machine. The empathy machine may be the ultimate nexus where our most uniquely human and most powerful asset – our capability for empathy – can be further leveraged by technology.

We see a future where human beings en masse in society, like Eastern monks through the ages, will be able to train our brains to hypertrophy our empathy skills. For sure, neuroscience is currently showing us ways to understand the biology of the social mind and how to use technology to enhance our empathy skills.

What if the fitness craze of the future was not about optimizing cardiac output and muscle efficiency, or even cognition, but about exquisitely tuning and maximizing our brains for their intrinsic capabilities for empathy? What if the very artificial intelligence machines we so worry about became, in fact, a new form of neuro personal trainer? What if we could program machines to relentlessly mine the big data of our consciousness to harvest new and better capabilities for human empathy?

When we strengthen the musculature and stamina of our empathy, we will reach new heights as a society. We will climb to the summit of technology’s capabilities and see a clear view of our purpose in life as human beings: to feel each other deeply and thus be compelled to act accordingly.

Experiential Technology Improves Human Performance

Unlocking untapped human potential

All human beings possess vast untapped potential. Even those who have achieved amazing things usually admit they have more to offer. This potential to improve originates in our brains. Contrary to prior dogma, we now know that the brain is capable of developing throughout life – allowing us to think better, to release new creativity, and to connect with others more meaningfully. We can continue to hone our ability to control our own thoughts and emotions over time, skills that are essential to enhancing human performance in all realms.

Recent advances in neuroscience are unraveling the mechanisms and pathways of the brain. Brain imaging now reveals where and how certain brain functions occur. We understand many of the ways in which the brain can falter over time or with disease. More important, we know how the brain can improve or expand its capabilities via certain mechanisms, inputs, and experiences.

Convergence of human-computer interaction with neuroscience

At the same time that our neuroscientific understanding of the brain is advancing, digital technology that interfaces with the brain is rapidly developing. This new wave of technology profoundly influences the electrical and chemical activity of the brain – unleashing its untapped potential. Technology that modulates brain function used to require direct chemical interaction, such as pharmaceuticals used to treat depression, or direct electrical interfaces, such as deep brain stimulation used to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Today, however, powerful brain-influencing technology can be non-pharmacologic and non-invasive: virtual and augmented reality, sensors and neurofeedback, robotics, artificial intelligence, neurogaming, and non-invasive electrical stimulation systems. We have named this convergence of digital technology that influences the brain to improve human performance Experiential Technology, or “XTech.”

Experiential technology harnesses neuroscientific knowledge to enhance cognition, memory, awareness, decision-making, communication, learning, and motor skills. Experiential technology can improve our wellbeing as normal people and can also reverse certain disorders of the brain. Experiential technology will create major new advances in human performance that will impact health, wellness, education, training, and entertainment.

Experiential Technology (XTech) enhances brain capabilities

Examples of the significant impact of experiential technology (XTech) are diverse and wide-reaching. Recently, National Institutes of Health-sponsored researchers at University of Washington collaborating with a technology company showed that children suffering from severe burns could reduce the pain associated with their wound care by 75% if they were immersed in a virtual reality experience called Snow World that brings them into a make-believe cold, calm, and fun environment. These children required 64% less medication to relieve their suffering during the care of their burns. There have been numerous scientific publications showing the capability of virtual and augmented reality to modulate the brain in other beneficial or therapeutic ways.

Another group at University of California, San Francisco studied older people with normal age-related declines in cognition and multitasking capabilities. In this scenario, neuroscientists specifically designed a training paradigm to stimulate and train neural pathways in the brain that govern attention. They embedded this paradigm into an engaging video game such that the therapy was “working behind the scenes” to deliver an experience that felt more like fun than medicine.

After training with this game paradigm, these older people were able to improve their cognitive abilities to resemble those of individuals in their twenties. These improvements persisted for at least 6 months after the training ended and, critically, the cognitive capabilities they gained transferred outside of the training environment and into real world activities. This work, hailed as major scientific breakthrough, was published in the esteemed and highly selective peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature.

While not widely publicized, many groups, including the United States military, have shown the ability of non-invasive energy delivery to the brain to enhance skill development and training. In one study performed by the United States Army and Air Force, the training time required for elite soldiers to excel at various tasks, such as sniper accuracy or drone pilot training, could be reduced by 50% when training sessions were accompanied by transcranial electrical stimulation of the brain. There are numerous other specific examples of the far-reaching capabilities of experiential technology to enhance the capabilities of the brain.

Large new human performance markets

Experiential technology is advancing quickly as brain science infuses broad digital technology platforms. An investigation into the commercial market has revealed hundreds of companies currently developing and commercializing experiential technology products. These companies are creating brand new sectors in the health, wellness, education, and entertainment markets. It is estimated that new segments of these markets in digital therapeutics, neurowellness, accelerated learning, and neurotainment will reach $50 billion by 2025. As these technologies become widespread, we will have many more opportunities to unlock and expand the capabilities of our brains — and our potential as human beings.

Virtual Reality is the Brain’s Reality: The Coming of Experiential Technology

I am very interested in technologies that can improve the function and capacity of the human brain. Over a decade ago, as an outgrowth of my training and practice as a neurosurgeon, I was an inventor of novel way to enhance the function of the brain with direct electrical stimulation of the cortical surface. The concept was to enhance the natural “plasticity” of the brain and cause it to “rewire” in order to increase its capabilities or to recover from damage such as a stroke. That’s what neuroplasticity is all about.

In the ensuing years, the field of neurotechnology has grown dramatically. Electrical stimulation of the brain has become an accepted and standard treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and several other neurological disorders. The market for neuropharmaceuticals has simultaneously become massive.

Scientists and clinicians have now made thousands of scientific discoveries related to neuroplasticity. While it used to be thought that the brain became “hard-wired” as humans reached adulthood, it is now widely recognized that the brain maintains an enormous capacity to grow new neurons and form new connections, enhancing its function throughout life. The trick is to provide the appropriate stimuli to the brain to maximize its favorable response.

More than chemicals and electricity

A while back, we used to believe that only chemicals and electricity could cause neuroplastic changes in the brain. Those were the relatively crude tools of the trade for experimentation at the time. Now neuroscientists have shown that all sorts of “exogenous” forms of stimulation can modify brain activity – even permanently. It is now recognized that light, sound, tactile stimulation, and various cognitive tasks such as meditation can also enhance neuroplasticity of the brain. These kinds of stimuli can cause favorable changes in the brain that can last a lifetime.

While it took decades for neuroscientists to elucidate the molecular biology underlying all of this – and it is very much still a work in progress – the results really aren’t very surprising, are they? Of course the brain itself changes in response to light, sound, physical sensations, and cognitive tasks. That is why we continue to learn and grow throughout life as we are exposed to enriching environments and activities! There is no doubt that the capacity of the human brain is not limited but has an enormous ability to expand. The secret is to expose the brain to exactly the right types of favorable stimuli in order to optimize the results. This is what neuroscientists are still trying to figure out. What are the best ways to stimulate the brain and how?

Computing power has led to massively engaging experiences

Over the same timeframe that the underlying mechanisms of neuroplasticity have become better understood, computing power has dramatically increased. We can now leverage incredible speed, processing power, and graphics capabilities. No surprise, then, that in taking advantage of these technological developments, videogaming environments have become immersive and massively engaging like never before. The videogame industry has become a multibillion-dollar industry. Large segments of the population spend more time playing videogames than watching television, reading, or listening to music – or interacting with others in some cases. Given how enriched these gaming experiences have become, virtual reality experiences are right around the corner.

Here’s the thing: immersive and virtual reality videogaming experiences may very well be providing exactly the kind of visual, auditory, tactile, and cognitive stimuli that can influence neuroplasticity. It may be that this kind of information-rich stimulation to the brain is actually more potent than what pharmaceuticals or devices can provide in the form of chemical or electrical stimulation.

Videogaming causes neuroplasticity

Adam Gazzaley is a widely respected neurologist and neuroscientist at UCSF. His team recently published a seminal scientific paper in the prestigious journal Nature showing that individuals exposed to a very specific and proprietary videogame protocol could reverse age-related declines in global measures of cognition in a lasting fashion.

Critical points:

  1. The gaming protocol was able to generate not only improvement in the skills required to play the game, but these newly learned skills transferred into more global measures of overall cognitive capabilities.
  2. The newly acquired cognitive capabilities lasted for a long time after game training sessions stopped (up to 6 months).
  3. Not any ordinary videogame can produce these results. The game has to be specifically designed with “stimulation parameters” embedded into it that trigger certain neurological reactions in the brain that cause neuroplasticity to occur. It has to be specific and exact in order to work.

To oversimplify, neuroplasticity enhancement, or “brain training,” appears to be like other forms of training: just doing a bunch of running, weight lifting, and snowboarding doesn’t turn you into an Olympic snowboarder like Shaun White. Sure, you have to run, weightlift, and board to become Shaun White, but that is not enough. You have to train specifically to do a triple cork on the halfpipe in order to succeed. Similarly, the brain training experiences that cause improvements in memory or attention have to be very specifically designed and executed in order to improve cognition. And these tricks are just now being invented and refined.

Future of neuroplasticity: Experiential Technology (XTech)

I predict that in the very near future rigorous neuroscientific studies will very specifically demonstrate the types of stimulation parameters related to light, sound, sensation, and cognitive tasks that cause the brain to rewire in adaptive ways – and which do not. These insights will enable programmers to embed these stimulation parameters imperceptibly into immersive videogames. Games that are tricked out in this way will become very powerful enhancers of neuroplasticity in the brain. These videogames will be so potent that their therapeutic capabilities will match or exceed the chemical effects of neuropharmaceuticals or the electrical effects of today’s neurostimulation devices. Not only will those who simply want to improve the performance of their brains benefit, but these turbocharged experiential technologies will develop into an entirely new category of XTech that will benefit individuals with clinical conditions such as ADHD, autism, and depression.

I think of XTech as: supercomputing technology plus neuroscientific knowledge packaged into an immersive, virtual reality experience delivered to the brain to enhance neuroplasticity and brain function. I predict that this will have an enormous potential to improve the human condition.