Five years after Tan Le was recognized in 1998 as Young Australian of the Year, she found herself at a career crossroad. She had been trained as a lawyer, done a stint as an entrepreneur and was also a community advocate.
But she was seeking a lifelong endeavor. “I wanted to find something that wasn't just a short stint or exciting for a few years,” recalled Le. And she found her calling in studying the human brain.
Le, 41, is the founder of Emotiv, a bioinformatics company that focuses on brain-computer interfaces. By combining wearable electroencephalography (EEG) systems, cloud computing and big data, Emotiv helps individuals understand their own brain. It also seeks to be a leader in brain research.
On Thursday, November 1, Le speaks at the University of Vermont's Ira Allen Chapel as part of the annual Aiken Lecture Series. She will share her personal story as a former refugee from South Vietnam, as well as discuss the gains made in EEG and their impact on such fields as healthcare and education.
Emotiv’s technology has most famously enabled Rodrigo Hubner Mendes, a quadriplegic man, to drive a Formula One car using EEG-powered brain technology, steering algorithms and track mapping. "It's just him and his mind, driving it forward," said Le in a company video.
Recently, Le was among 20 Australians whose portraits were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia. Seven Days caught up with the tech revolutionary to talk more about her work, her love for science fiction movies and the fears that some might have about emerging technologies.
SEVEN DAYS: What is it about the human brain that fascinates you, leading you to establish Emotiv?
TAN LE: The desire to work on the brain, I think, was an accumulative experience. My mum's constant challenge to forge your own path, to imagine and realize the opportunity that we've been given and to make something worthwhile of it. It wasn't just about making sure that we would be better off. What can we do with the opportunities that we've been given to help and influence the community around us?
I thought it was an incredibly important endeavor because we know so little about the human brain. And yet, so much of who we are, [and] our sense of identity is wrapped up in this machinery, an incredible organ that fits inside our heads.
SD: How is the technology that Emotiv created being used right now?
TL: We've been powering neuroscientific research globally. We are in 120 countries. We have over 4,000 publications that utilize and talk about our technology around seizures, traumatic brain injury, all these traditional neurological disorders. But [they also discuss] much broader areas from education to safety to fatigue to distraction to cognitive dissonance.
This is not just research in the United States. This is research in 120 countries, because the brain is different. We can't build a model on the human brain just in the West and think it will work for everywhere in the world.
We announced a cooperation with SAP, which is one of the world's foremost enterprise software companies in order to tackle the issue of workplace stress. The World Health Organization has identified stress as one of the epidemics for the developed world. We are not machines. We need to have time for a break and rest in order to preserve our mental and cognitive wellbeing.
SD: Have you presented to audiences who are skeptical of new technologies?
TL: I think it's really important that the public is made aware of the power [and] the opportunities that you have to make advances, to help, whether it's autism, trauma, brain injury, dementia, anxiety or depression.
It's very exciting, of course, to look at technology and then to imagine that it can do all the possible things. Machines are not going to be able to replace humans any time soon. They are quite narrow in their intelligence today. They can do one thing very, very well. They are faster [and] they don't have fatigue. But they're not going to be able to replace a full human in all of the agility that we have, our cognitive ability, our ability to synthesize a multitude of different information [and] form a balanced opinion.
We've got to make sure the public understands the power of data, but also its limits so that policy makers [and] the public can have a much more informed [view] about the balancing act.
SD: How do you feel about your products being used in sci-fi films?
TL: I am an inventor. For any inventor, it's about being able to capture people's imagination. Before it becomes pedestrian and commoditized and used in every day life, when you create something new, you need to inspire and captivate people's imagination. Science fiction does that because it's looking into the promise of the future, both good and bad.
I'm a big science fiction buff. It gives you a glimpse into how it could be. It's a lot of fun. Every technology that you invent goes through a technology curve where you're going to get some early people [who] will try it out. It's really important that it becomes slowly, slowly a part of more common and popular culture.
SD: You’ve received several awards and honors. Do you feel the pressure to keep raising the bar?
TL: Of course. I think I'm a work in progress. I have a very long journey ahead of me. This technology is just getting started to a point where we're going to see some meaningful applications that will start to impact people's lives. [I] definitely don't feel that [I’m] finished. You can't just invent something and not think about its longterm impact and be responsible for how it evolved. We have a responsibility now that we've created this technology to continue to evolve it, to continue to shape it, and to continue to ensure that it continues to help people in the long term.
SD: How does it feel to have your portrait drawn and displayed at the Australian National Portrait Gallery?
TL: For me, a refugee starting with absolutely nothing, to be recognized at 41 is an incredible honor and a privilege. It's something that represents an honor, for me as an individual but also for my family. It's also something that, I think, embodies Australia, being a country made up of migrants.
It's a phenomenal testimony to what opportunities we can create in an environment that provides opportunities for people. The human spirit can triumph over so much adversity. It’s a symbol of the future as well. It will be there for many years to come, long after I'm gone.
SD: Emotiv is headquartered in San Francisco. But you have two facilities in Vietnam. What went into that decision?
TL: There are a few things. There's a sense of connection there and a desire to give back. But I also feel that it's important for a company like ours to have a place in the developing world, not just in the developed world. We need to respect the sentiment of people [who] are really trying to create their future now. It's a much younger economy. A lot of people have engineering and mathematics backgrounds, but not so much technology. Bringing technology into that very strong science and mathematics foundation is really a great opportunity.