Tan Le is on a mission to use digital technology to unlock the potential of the human mind while assisting some two billion people worldwide who are afflicted with brain illnesses.
Le – a former refugee who arrived by boat to Australia with her family from South Vietnam in 1982 – is captivated by the human brain and its possibilities and challenges, describing it as ‘3 pounds of human potential.’
She is co-founder and CEO of EMOTIV, a US-headquartered bioinformatics company that has created electroencephalographic (EEG) headsets and software that record brainwave data, assesses cognitive performance, and control devices using brain activity.
She told the CIO Forum in Sydney that her organisation stands at the frontlines of the battle to make the ‘4th industrial revolution’ a reality. CIO Forum was organised by CIO Australia in association with EMC.
EMOTIV has developed algorithms that enable brain waves to be decoded by sensors placed on the surface of the scalp. The headsets allow users to control devices and vehicles such as cars – by translating their thoughts into actions. Its more recent second-generation product democratises research into the health and fitness of the brain.
“We are aiming to make this technology available to everyone including those who might not have access due to prohibitive costs. These may be people in parts of Asia or Africa or students or ‘tinkerers’ anywhere in the world who want to gain a better understanding of the brain,” Le said.
During her address, Le identified three key ingredients that have been central to EMOTIV’s success since its inception in 2003: clarity of vision; adaptation and persistence over a long period of time; and courage and conviction in the face of uncertainty.
A clear vision
Le told the audience that when the company began it had a clear view of what it wanted to achieve: to seek a better understanding of the human brain.
“Our perceptions and experience of the world are all filtered through the brain. We don’t directly experience what is out there around us. Instead we experience the model of what our brain builds that is out there. And even though our models will all have things in common, they will also be unique and personal,” Le said.
“A colour blind person will experience colours differently – a trained musician will hear music differently and memories of events will differ greatly between any two eyewitnesses. Not only does the brain define our experience of the world, it also defines who we are.”
Adaptation and persistence
Le said the biological brain is not built to last 100 years, and new technologies must be developed to improve its health and capabilities. Conventional EEG systems were previously cumbersome and expensive, cost tens of thousands of dollars and required specialist technicians to fit them each time they were used, Le said.
Brain control interfaces (BCIs) – which enabled the company to focus on control – were an attractive starting point for EMOTIV, said Le.
“We had paved the way for portable and affordable brain scanners that made it possible for us to gather data on a massive scale. We could now aggregate data that could one day be the key to predicting and preventing brain-related illnesses that afflict two billion or one in every three people around the world.”
Improvements to EMOTIV’s bioinformatics systems are not iterative, said Le. The company strives for ‘revolution rather than evolution’ at each stage of its development, aiming to move the sector forward in leaps and bounds rather than simply tweaking what has gone before, Le said.
This sort of disruptive innovation relies on predicting rather than anticipating the future, she said.
“And where developments cannot be predicted, we need to ensure that we remain flexible enough to adjust and change course to take advantage of new approaches that can be integrated into our road map.”
Courage and conviction
After four years of planning, Le’s mother and her children escaped communist-ruled Vietnam in 1982 on a converted US tugboat disguised as a fishing vessel.
They slipped out of a harbour with 158 other voyagers while Le’s father remained behind in case they were captured and imprisoned.
“My 21-year-old mother was willing to chance the dangers of a slow death adrift at sea or a speedy but no less unpleasant capture at the hands of pirates who infested those waters, with no more defence that a bottle of poison to lessen our suffering if it came to the worst,” Le said.
“She didn’t know how the journey would end but she took that risk, sailed out into those uncertain seas because she believed in her vision of what could be possible if we reached Australia.”
After their arrival, Le’s mother was confronted with the challenge of building a new life in a new land, putting food on the table for her family, and somehow finding the mental and financial resources to help Le and her siblings succeed.
Le said the same type of resilience and spirit is necessary to build a company and develop technologies in a world where the future is uncertain.
“When your goal is to change paradigms, you will often be confronted by experts who will tell you it can’t be done. But if you have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and if you have the courage to pursue it in the face of doubt, then ‘it can’t be done’ becomes an irresistible challenge rather than an insurmountable obstacle.”