A Chinese Billionaire Is Using His Fortune to Unlock the Human Brain
Shanda Investment Group founder Tianqiao Chen has dedicated $1 billion to help with research that he says may be on the cusp of major breakthroughs related to the human brain.
The 45-year-old resident of Menlo Park, California, says a better understanding of how the brain works could help treat mental disorders and neurodegenerative diseases for which cures remain elusive. A former tech titan in China, Chen dropped out of public view in 2012 to focus on his own mental health. This also led him to turn his attention and half of his personal fortune to brain research.
His donations include a $115 million gift to create a neuroscience institute at the California Institute of Technology and 500 million yuan ($72.9 million) to establish a similar unit with Fudan University-affiliated Huashan Hospital, a leading neurology facility in China. Chen spoke with Bloomberg News in an interview last month.
After becoming a billionaire at 30, what is your next challenge?
Everybody thinks about how to achieve wealth, how to be become rich — this must be the first mountain. We climbed the first mountain, I was lucky. After I got sick and after the panic attacks began, I started to think that I could do more to help people directly. If we cannot avoid death, let’s try to relieve the pain and suffering. What we mean is chronic pain: suffering, including depression, anxiety.
We talked to many scientists and realized it was going to be a long journey, because pain is not just simply a feeling, pain is a manipulation of your brain. The only way to cure it is to understand the mystery of our brain, how we perceive pain. Now, with the development of many new technologies, we can adopt a bottom-up approach: we can understand our brain from a molecular level, the circuits and patterns, how the memory forms, how emotions form.
So the second mountain is tall, but we’re excited because I think it’s the right time for humans to answer these questions. Maybe our donation, this $1 billion investment, can be a catalyst for discovery.
What do you think is possible in your lifetime?
From a scientific perspective, we cannot set any goals or targets for within my lifetime, for humanity, because there’s no ultimate or so-called single truth for science. But from the technology and practical perspective, of course we have some expectations.
I want to know how we process our emotions, our thoughts — what is the fundamental mechanism. For example, why am I so addicted to sweets? Why can some people not control themselves and turn violent over a simple conflict?
That will help to understand diseases, that can give guidance to the pharmaceutical companies. With a deeper understanding of our brains, we can have a greater impact on the whole of society. We can seize the power to solve problems which affect all of humanity: suicide, terrorism, depression, anxiety.
How could this spark a technological revolution?
I think unlimited possibilities may happen in the next 10 to 20 years. I visited many labs and talked to many scientists, and I see a lot of achievements which you can only imagine in sci-fi, but actually you can see in the lab. For example, brain-machine interface, may have some achievement in the next 10 years. Brain-to-brain communication is not a dream, it will come true. If we can directly detect what you think, all these traditional communication procedures will be skipped. You can see some mind-reading experiments already, mind control — all of this will happen.
I am very optimistic about the potential impact of achieving this but worry about the negative impact if we don’t handle it properly.
How can we avoid that?
The government should find some solutions for that. Different governments have their different views.
Technology will bring some dangers to the world but I’m optimistic about the future. The key is to reduce the cost of this transition period. The machine will take more jobs from our humans, many of the people worry about that. I am not so worried about job replacement because if you have a birds-eye view of history, you see every hundred or thousand years you have a technology revolution, some jobs are lost and many new jobs are created.
I think what we should learn is how to talk to the machine, not people to people. The people-to-people communication — all the problems will be solved by the machine.
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