A decade ago, the government of Israel declared Moran Cerf dead. Today, he is a part of some of the most cutting-edge and innovative research on the human brain. The 37-year-old has been a pilot, a radio host, an inventor, a filmmaker, a furniture designer, a hacker and a computer security expert for the government of Israel in the past. This was before his near encounter with death and meeting with a Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
Cerf is a neuroscientist at the New York University and the University of California, Los Angeles. But in his early 20s, he ran a hacking ring with his friends. They would hack into online shopping websites such as eBay and Amazon to make money. Later, they moved on to infiltrating bank websites and stealing money, only to report it to the bank and offer their services as computer security experts.
Once while trying to hack into a government database, his friends played a prank on Cerf, and tampered with his record on the database to declare him dead. It wasnât until he went to a local bank to drop a cheque that he realised he was dead in all government records.
And because the database was programmed in such a way that the dead couldnât be brought back to life, Cerf was officially dead for a few months before the government rectified the error.
Hacking was a lucrative career. But a chance meeting with Francis Crick, who along with David Watson, discovered the structure of the DNA, changed things for Cerf. He may have stayed in front of a computer screen, hacking into websites, had Crick not pointed out how hacking into a computer was similar to hacking into the human brain.
Today, Cerf has a PHD in neuroscience from the celebrated California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and is at the forefront of brain research in the world.
With his team at Caltech, Cerf eavesdrops on the human brain by placing electrodes deep inside it. After five years of intense labour, he can now read what people are thinking, and not just read, but project those thoughts onto a screen. In fact, at the height of his research he was called the âman who can record dreamsâ.
âAs a hacker,â he says, âyou get a black box. You know that you are putting something into it and something else is coming out, but you donât know whatâs happening inside. You have to learn about it by trial and error. You have to be creative, because itâs not something that others have already done. The brain works in the same way: you see what goes in and what comes out, but you donât know whatâs happening inside.â
Cerf is also a master storyteller. He is a 12-time Story Slam winner and a two-time story Grand Slam champion. He also hosts a show at NPR (formerly National Public Radio) and holds regular story- telling sessions at Moth, an acclaimed not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. He also teaches an annual screenwriting course on science at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.