Cerebrum — Building the Brain's Third Hemisphere

Sebastian Mellen

Sebastian Mellen


You are who you are because of your cerebrum. Your cerebrum is a miraculous and incredibly complex part of your brain that's responsible for your ability to communicate, remember, think, move, and sense the world around you.

Every emotion you've experienced, idea you've had, and memory stored in your brain was once a flurry of neuronal activity within your cerebrum. The things that make you you — that give rise to your internal experience — are contained within it.

We called our company "Cerebrum" because we believe in the importance of safeguarding your digital brain. Let's explain:

The cerebrum is the largest part of the human brain, and is made up of two cerebral hemispheres, plus a few subcortical structures like the hippocampus. The human cerebrum is uniquely large — our consciousness and intelligence are byproducts of its size. And its size is the product of a mysterious, very fast 2-3 factor increase in hominid brain size, that took place over the past 3 million years; an unusually rapid increase that remains mostly unexplained 1.

Here's what's interesting: some scholars suggest this rapid increase in brain size was spurred on by the development of new tools. To quote from Britannica's entry on human evolution, "Hominin brain expansion tracks so closely with refinements in tool technology that some scholars ignore other factors that may have contributed to the brain’s increasing size" 2.

Today, humans are building new tools — electronics, computers, and digital communication networks like the internet. To accommodate these new tools, we've started developing a digital cognition layer that resembles a third cerebral hemisphere. Our thesis is that the next step in the brain's evolution will incorporate this digital medium. For this reason, it's incredibly important that we safeguard this nascent part of ourselves.

The Third Hemisphere

In the modern age, we've begun to extend ourselves into the digital realm, and we've augmented our memory, social connections, and communication methods with digital tools. These tools help us stay in touch and be more productive, and act as the de facto "third hemisphere" of the brain.

Consequently, most services we use store digital representations of who we are, from our social media profiles to our search histories and email accounts. But while our digital selves are becoming more important, they're exposed to increased risk, and are not well protected or secured. Usually, the digital parts of our identities don't belong to us.

This puts us in a strange predicament. Our "third cerebral hemisphere" lives outside of our control. It's owned by organizations that, at best, don't take very good care of it; at worst these organizations take advantage of our digital selves to manipulate us (most prominently via targeted advertising). Unfortunately, the custodianship of this new part of our brains has been delegated to shadowy corporations that have abdicated their social responsibility. As a result, significant pieces of our identities, and by extension ourselves, are not controlled by us.

In the modern digital paradigm, the costs of having our digital selves fragmented or lost are untold. It's not inaccurate to say that for many, losing access to their smartphones or computers would be akin to a sort of lobotomization. That's why it's so important to own our own identities and online selves: our reliance on our devices has made us dependent on corporations whose business models rely on owning our identities. These corporations profit by extracting value from our online selves, and provide us services like social media and email to hold us captive in their ecosystems.

This arrangement is only possible because of how online services collect and store our data.

Most efforts to solve the problem of the exploitative control of our digital identities have been piecemeal. Some companies have made tepid steps towards increasing data privacy, and some governments have enacted mild pro-privacy regulation. But these efforts have left us with a complicated and contradictory regulatory landscape that has failed to solve the core problem of identity custodianship. Thusly, it could be argued that these efforts have made the problem worse. Without a technical paradigm shift, the problem looks to be insoluble.

Fortunately, a new way of thinking about digital identity, called "self-sovereign identity," has recently emerged.

The Rise of Self-Sovereign Identity

Self-sovereign identity is the concept that our digital selves should be under our control. This means all of the data that constitutes who you are — social media posts, identification cards, health records, credentials, etc. — should be stored by you, in a format you have full control over.

Self-sovereign identity is a promising alternative to the exploitative and extractive models of identity custodianship that are all-too-common today. In the self-sovereign identity paradigm, you, and only you, own your own identity. Because you fully control all the parts of your identity, you can then delegate access to parts of your identity to others based on informed consent. No longer can companies extract value from you without you agreeing to and being aware of it.

Christopher Allen, who coined the term, identified the following ten principles of self-sovereign identity 3:

  1. Existence: Users must have an independent existence from the systems they use.
  2. Control: Users must control their identities (this also means controlling private encryption keys).
  3. Access: Users must have access to their own data
  4. Transparency: Systems and algorithms must be transparent.
  5. Persistence: Identities must be long-lived.
  6. Portability: Information and services about identity must be transportable and portable to other systems or apps.
  7. Interoperability: Identities should be as widely usable as possible.
  8. Consent: Users must agree to the use of their identity, and any use of the data and credentials associated with their identity.
  9. Minimization: Disclosure of claims must be minimized.
  10. Protection: The rights of users must be protected.

Many of the online services we use today have violations of these principles built into their business models. Therefore, it seems unlikely that such businesses, including megacorps like Google and Facebook, can abide by these principles and simultaneously stay in business. This problem is not unique to the business model of targeted advertising, though — put advertising-/tracking-based business models aside, and you'll find other services aren't much better. Services as seemingly mundane as credit score reports and health record management are also fraught with a bevy of intentional and unintentional design choices that violate the principles of self-sovereign identity.

As digitization spreads and envelops the analog world, private records are becoming ever more vulnerable to attack while also becoming harder to keep track of and tangibly own. Having this data fragmented and spread across different services, each controlled by a separate (and often unknown) party, poses serious risks, like fraud and identity theft. This means that, as we store more of these records and credentials digitally, an "identity wallet" will become a necessary part of daily life.

But these identity wallets may pose more risks, especially if they are centralized. At least in the current model, data breaches are typically compartmentalized to the breached service. If one service were to control all of someone's data, the impact of a hack or data breach would be incredibly high.

This illustrates the need for a decentralized digital wallet. An identity wallet that a user can control and manage themselves. Think of this wallet as a personal database of sorts — a container that stores sensitive personal data, keeping it secure and safe from prying eyes.

Such a digital wallet carries benefits for privacy, security, and convenience. By consolidating the scattered pieces of your identity into one private space, you no longer have to rely on hundreds of different services to store your records. Rather than keeping all of your digital assets and credentials locked up in different places or accounts, such wallet would keep all of your assets in one easy-to-access place.

If you're convinced of the need for such a wallet, you're probably wondering what the next steps are. We've started to frame all our thinking around credentials, and we're planning to position Cerebrum as the premier credential clearinghouse.

The Cerebrum Credential Clearinghouse

At Cerebrum, believe credentials are the right gateway to future self-sovereign identity ecosystems. We've developed a way of looking at the world which is "credential-based," which means that although we may use different words for the data at the core, almost all digital/online interactions are oriented around credentials.

In our thinking, any data with the following attributes can be a credential:

  1. An an issuer,
  2. A claim, and
  3. A recipient/subject

This means most data can be formatted as a credential, from a prescription to a college diploma to a passport. Even things which don't match the dictionary definition of credentials can become credentials, like diagnoses and health records. And the credentialing model reaches further — accounts and logins can be credentials as well. We envision a future where the majority of online interactions are based on consent-based credential flows, where all sharing of and requests for access to data are mediated through a digital wallet.

Using this credential-based approach, and by leveraging brilliant prior art like the W3C's Decentralized Identifiers and Verifiable Credentials specifications, we're implementing credentialing ecosystems that work for everyone.

We're busy deploying our flagship product, which is our Verified Identity Documentation (or VID) wallet. As the name implies, the VID wallet allows you to hold verifiable credentials that make up your digital identity. We're doing our best to balance pragmatism, decentralization, security, usability, and self-sovereignty. We think we've found a good middle-ground, and we're in the process of a limited beta rollout across the US.

In the coming weeks and months, we will be announcing partnerships with key credential-issuing partners who we're excited to incorporate into the Cerebrum VID ecosystem. By acting as the credential clearinghouse and ecosystem provider for various credential providers, we hope to kickstart the adoption of self-sovereign identity and deliver value to our customers and users from day one.

We called our company "Cerebrum" because our goal is to build the most secure, private, and well-designed home for the brain's "digital third hemisphere." If you share that mission, and like what we're doing, please reach out to us. We're looking to bring on new team members, expand our advisory network, and onboard new partners into the Cerebrum VID ecosystem.