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Facts about your brain

Mind over matter

Tan Le ties the bond between our neurons and microprocessors.

Bioinformatics visionary Tan Le is building a world where mere thoughts control the connected things all around us.

Ask Tan Le how humans will interact with the ubiquitous technology suffusing their lives, and the petite and usually soft spoken Vietnamese-born entrepreneur grows animated.

“Yes,” she explains with rising voice; “we have keyboards and mice, touch screens and, more recently, voice and gesture control. They let us run apps and games, launch appliances or move a prosthetic limb. But these interfaces are only just good enough to get things done.” Le is after the ultimate interface: connecting the human brain straight to our infrastructure to control objects on a screen as well as a smart home or a connected car.

“The holy grail is being able to tap into the power of the mind and the brain to seamlessly interact with your world.”

Tan Le

“Being able to have a much more seamless and intuitive way to interact with this plethora of devices around us is the ideal interface of the future.”

In short, Emotiv’s 39-year-old founder is working on benign mind control as the next big thing.

Test person

It sounds like science fiction for an average consumer to merely think of an action and have software or hardware do it for them. However, Le’s San Francisco based company has demonstrated exactly that with a small band that fits on the skull, and accompanying software to read and interpret human brain waves. What was previously the domain of neurologists taking expensive electroencephalograms (EEG) is now within reach of consumers willing to spend 299 dollars. That is if, and this is a big if, software can make sense of the brain’s estimated 86 to 100 billion neurons firing, lighting up a monitor like non-stop fireworks.

Le is the first to admit how daunting a task it is to build a reliable mind-machine interface. “The brain is the most complex structure in the known universe. Every brain, depending on what you do, is optimized and refined to allow you to be the best at what you typically do.” So the brain structure and activity of a musician looks very different from that of an athlete, and it changes over time and depending on ephemeral factors such as stress.

But then again, thinking big and designing for the future, as improbable as it may seem, comes naturally to Le. When she was four, three generations of her family crammed onto a tugboat and escaped from Vietnam to Australia, facing threats from pirates on the South China Sea to economic hardship and bureaucratic red tape greeting the thousands of so-called “boat people” in search of a better life.

Growing up in a working-class suburb of Melbourne, the immigrant girl excelled and was admitted to college at age 16. In 1998, she was named “Young Australian of the Year.” She presented her life’s journey of “humility with daring” as a gripping talk at the famous TED conference, which has so far racked up almost a million views online.

Tan Lee

Back in 2003, Le launched Emotiv in San Francisco, initially targeting serious gamers who wanted cutting-edge gear to control the action with their thoughts. Since then, the company has regrouped and currently employs 50 people around California, Australia and Vietnam. It now primarily works with academics who want to better understand the brain. The rise of cloud computing, machine learning and powerful yet inexpensive hardware such as virtual reality headsets is putting the goal of mind control within reach.

Collecting enough data sets to properly interpret individual brain activity opens up a whole new range of possibilities — from active mind control, or thinking of an action such as starting a dishwasher or unlocking a door, to passive mind control, where subconscious moods and preferences can trigger an action, similar to how one human picks up subtle, unspoken clues from another.

“We’re already witnessing a merger between the physical, digital, and biological realms. In 50 years, you probably won’t see a physical device anymore, it will just be embedded,” Le says. Software will constantly measure the brain, recording whether it’s at ease or stressed, alert or tired. And it will allow humans to seamlessly integrate with the Internet of Things. “Think of a smart home that understands you. As you walk up, it will open the door and tune its environment just for you. The colors will be very specific to your mood; the entertainment will adjust to your needs at that moment.”

Tan Lee

Taking this technology mainstream will also enable new forms of personalized teaching or therapeutic treatment. “Teachers could tell if students are distracted or not. If you can see how the brain responds to spoken words, you can make hearing aids more intelligent by having them focus on a conversation in a noisy room,” explains Le.

“The silent bond between our neurons and microprocessors will have far-reaching consequences,” she adds. “Once machines start to understand and respond to our emotions, we’ll develop a different relationship to devices and applications.”

As rosy as this vision may sound to an engineer, mind control clearly has a dark side. “Do we want machines, ultimately, to have access to everything we think and feel? I don't know,” Le thinks out loud. “We have to put in place safeguards and a kill switch when things go wrong. I think it’s important, as pioneers in this segment, that we think about options for always preserving human choice.” After all, her quest is about mind over matter.

Text: Steffan Heuer

For more information about Tan Le click here.

Photos and Video ©David Magnusson

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