Tech pioneer Tan Le is probing the brain’s mysteries

The entrepreneur has created a device that gives feedback about thoughts and emotions

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      When Tan Le was four years old, her mother carried her and her sister to a secret hiding place in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. In the early hours of the morning, the three were shepherded onto a boat, and hunkered down as it stole through the rough waters of the South China Sea. The year was 1981, and the young family was fleeing the southern part of the nation, which—after the Vietnam War ended in 1975—Le’s mother believed held no future for her two girls.

      Five days after embarking on the voyage, with food and water dwindling, the boat and its 150 passengers were rescued by a British oil tanker. It ferried them to the shores of Malaysia, where the trio spent a number of months in a refugee camp. Her mother applied for passage to Australia, and 12 weeks later, the family arrived at their new home.

      Le was enrolled in a local school in their Melbourne suburb, and it quickly became clear that she was a gifted student.

      After finishing high school at 16, she decided on a career as a lawyer. Motivated by the desire to help immigrants navigate the Australian legal system, she earned a place at Melbourne’s Monash University, graduated with top marks, and began a career in a first-rate corporate law firm. With her path mapped out, Le was on course for her goal of sitting on the Australian Supreme Court.

      But despite that success, she felt that something was missing.

      “Whilst it was really intellectually stimulating and interesting, it wasn’t fully fulfilling for me as a human being,” she tells the Georgia Straight, discussing her short-lived career in law. “I used to catch the 6:50 train to the city every morning. When you look around, especially on a Monday morning when it’s raining, people are miserable. No one is happy to be there. No one looks like they’re inspired to go to work. A lot of people look like they’re sheep, being herded along a path, and haven’t stopped to think, ‘What am I doing? Why am I headed along this trajectory?’ And I thought to myself, ‘Do I want to be one of those people five years from now or do I want to stop and get off this road and find my own path?’”

      Two factors encouraged Le’s leap into the unknown. After the dotcom boom and bust in the year 2000, a number of entrepreneurs about her own age came through her law firm looking for services, all eager to pursue their passions and build their own companies. Meanwhile, she discovered a whole library of books that introduced her to the flourishing world of technology.

      “It became very clear to me after consuming a lot of these books that we’re living in a very unique time in history, where technological advances are really going to drive and shape the future,” she says. “I had two choices. One, to stay in the law and facilitate what other entrepreneurs were doing. Or, two: I could jump in. I felt that it was so intoxicating to have an idea and build it, and bring people around you who could share the same vision and same idea and then potentially shape the trajectory of the future.”

      Her first venture was a runaway success. Long before smartphones were invented in 2001, Le cofounded Scan and Send Mobile E-Commerce (SASME). One of the first people to see the potential of SMS messaging, she struck a deal with a popular Aussie rules football show to get people to vote for Player of the Year via text. The telecom companies agreed to pay them five cents a message, and the scheme was wildly popular. Within a year, the business grew so rapidly that the company was processing close to a hundred million messages a month, and when she sold the organization two years later, she made a small fortune.

      For her next scheme, she took a different approach.

      “The thing for me was that I wasn’t really interested in building businesses for the sake of the business, and making money from it,” she says. “It was using technology as a facilitator…and creating something that never existed before.”

      Le had always been interested in the brain. In spite of its major role in regulating every bodily function, scientific certainties about the organ remain scant. Le was gripped by unravelling the mysteries of the brain’s emotional centres and determining the reasons why individuals display certain behaviours. Most of all, however, she wanted to help others. Hoping to create a piece of tech that could counter the brain’s degeneration as it ages, she wanted to build an accessible device that could extend people’s cognitive well-being.

      The result was a multisensor EEG (electroencephalography) headset. Designed by her new company, Emotiv, the device uses various sensors to measure the electrical impulses that power the brain.

      “We have a lot of people who use it for the feedback function,” she says. “You can use the equipment to…understand when the brain is paying attention, when it’s stressed, and all these indicators allow you to optimize your own cognitive performance. We have a lot of people who…might be athletes or people who are high-functioning who want to identify how to make the best of their day. The next stage for us is to really improve workplace productivity and just help alleviate workplace stress, which is becoming a really big health epidemic.”

      Although Emotiv’s devices offer a way for individuals to better understand their brain chemistry, its tech has also been making headlines for its ability to control objects. Le’s dream is to create a brain-computer interface: a way to manipulate things without needing to touch them. Her first major success was when a quadriplegic man, Rodrigo Hubner Mendez, used Emotiv’s headset to drive a Formula One car using just his thoughts. In a vehicle that didn’t have pedals or a steering wheel, Mendez successfully completed a lap of an F1 track.

      “Rodrigo trained a [machine learning] algorithm to associate a certain set of patterns in his brain with a command,” she says. “And then when he thinks that same command again, he can activate the action. So he will actually train the algorithm to say ‘This is how I visualize the car driving forward.’ And then the algorithm is able to pick up that very distinct set of patterns and use that as a classifier to either turn right or turn left. You associate different sets of electrical patterns with unique commands which can trigger any sort of action, virtual or physical.”

      Le—an expert on how brain augmentation will transform the ways that we think and perform tasks in the future—will provide a keynote speech at the #BCTECHSummit that explores how brain-computer interfaces will be used in place of manual operations.

      “I am really looking forward to the #BCTECHSummit in March, as it is one of the major innovation events in Canada,” she says. “I have a lot of admiration for what the Canadian government is doing to support the technology ecosystem, and look forward to being there to experience the energy and connect with attendees.”

      Tan Le speaks at the #BCTECHSummit at the Vancouver Convention Centre on March 12.

      Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays

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