Tianqiao Chen: Breakthrough in Cognitive Science Will Lay The Foundation for The Next Industrial Revolution

Translated from an interview in the Financial Times (China)
Jianyu Zou, CEO, Investank


Chen Tianqiao made a public comeback in 2016 with the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute (TCCI). Jianyu Zou has covered Tianqiao Chen’s career extensively. He recently conducted an interview with him regarding his support of brain science research and his personal reflections on life.


Before the formation of the BAT digital landscape of China, Shanda stood out as the only real titan. Chen Tianqiao, who ran his startup with wife Chrissy Luo and brother Danian Chen, was highly recognized for his talents and vision. However, luck was not always on Chen’s side, and he encountered some health challenges. What followed was the privatization of the company; Chen moved to Singapore with his family and then transformed the company from an industrial one into an investment firm.


After years of recovery and working behind the scenes, Chen Tianqiao returned in 2016 with the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute (TCCI). The aim of the institute is “to improve human experience and benefit humankind by better understanding how brains perceive, learn and interact with the world.” In 2018, a documentary commissioned by TCCI called Minds Wide Open made its world premier on the Discovery Channel. The film showcases the current status of brain science and outlines how close scientists are to major breakthroughs. And in March 2019, TCCI released its first annual report.


I have had multiple conversations with Chen Tianqiao, Chrissy Luo, and Danian Chen. Back in 2002 in Shanghai, I saw Chrissy driving a Mercedes. When she was about to park the car, Tianqiao got off the car first to save their spot. “Tianqiao, why weren’t you driving?” I asked. Chen replied, “I don’t drive and I can’t drive. Because I am always thinking. It is dangerous if I zone out when driving.”


In the shining history of the Chen family, Tianqiao has always impressed. Things have only fallen apart twice: The first time was when Shanda planned to reshape entertainment industry with set-top boxes; the second was Chen’s illness.


Zou Jianyu (CEO of Investank.com) recently interviewed Chen, who is now based in the San Francisco Bay Area by phone.


Can you describe the strategy around TCCI’s donations to Caltech and the creation of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Translational Research in Shanghai?

Chen Tianqiao: Allow me to outline our plans for TCCI, which is dedicated to driving brain research with three approaches.


The first is fundamental research. Its primary focus is to understand brain mechanisms at the cellular and molecular levels.


The second one is clinical research. It is mainly about how fundamental research might benefit the treatment of three major types of brain diseases (mental disorders, degenerative diseases, and other physiological diseases). TCCI does not develop new drugs, but it helps the companies that do to better apply the learnings of fundamental research.


The third one is brain development. To put it simply, it is to use our research results to spark the next industrial revolution.


In terms of fundamental research, we founded TCCI at Caltech. Given that China is still catching up to the US in the field of fundamental research, TCCI partnered with Huashan Hospital and Shanghai Mental Health Center and established our Institute for Translational Research in Shanghai, which is committed to facilitating the translation between fundamental and clinical research. In comparison with the US, China has some advantages in this area. With its large population, doctors there have extensive clinical experience.


In terms of brain development in industry, we need to go back to the most recent industrial revolution, which we all know derives from the breakthrough in information technology. Decades have passed and we are still relying on it. It is like throwing a rock into the pond. The ripples seemed to get bigger and bigger, and to touch all of our industries. But in fact, its power only gets weaker. Now the question becomes: where do we find the next rock? We believe the key to the next industrial revolution lies in breakthroughs in cognitive science.


The development of human technology to date has essentially been to satisfy humans’ ever-growing desires and demands, and such desires and demands are essentially a kind of perception and cognition. While technology keeps advancing, we do not find ourselves happier than people who lived a hundred years ago. Clearly, to seek from the outside or to meet the needs of our brains by altering the outside world cannot serve as the ultimate way to achieve happiness. Therefore, if we ever want to realize greater breakthroughs, we either need to endow the outside world with a better understanding of humankind so it can better understand us and our needs, which is the key of many hyped technologies now such as artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, self-driving cars, robots, and virtual reality. Or, we need to understand the nature of desire, open the black box of brain, understand human’s perception and decision-making processes, and allow technology to truly satisfy the needs of brains. Whether to deceive or decode our brains, we need to achieve substantial breakthroughs in cognitive science.


So we really have a lot of work to do, don’t we? Because Chrissy and I are still young, I frequently ask myself “what are true philanthropists like?” I believe a true philanthropist should approach charity as an entrepreneur. He/she should contribute his/her time rather than just capital. Otherwise, they are nothing more than a donator. Last week, Stephen Schwarzman, Chairman and CEO of Blackstone, visited our home and drank tea with us. At 72, he still has a busy schedule and he told me that 30% to 40% of his time is occupied by Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University. So far, he has interviewed every single one of the four hundred Schwarzman scholars in person and we want to learn from him. Merely to realize our three goals by funding partnerships is not fulfilling for us.


So starting this year, we are going to create a program to support scientists directly with money and resources. We are going to work with these scientists directly, instead of through partnerships.

TCCI Postdoc Programs and Supporting Young Scientists

Chen Tianqiao: In order to accomplish this, we have to constantly meet more scientists. In 2018, TCCI sponsored almost all of the major neuroscience conferences. We also commissioned the documentary Minds Wide Open, the main message of which is that young scientists are the most significant driver to move fundamental research forward.


I see the advancement of our world in the form of waves. The original force of each wave must be created by scientists. Entrepreneurs can then help scientists find ways to implement and apply their discovery. And politicians can assist with this process by balancing fairness and efficiency.


Thus we must find the next technological breakthrough or the next science leader. In 2018, TCCI spent the entire year conducting comprehensive research with 23 top universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. All of the schools took our survey very seriously and the responses from some schools were more than 50 pages. We also interviewed 20 leading professors and the results allowed us to write a white paper outlining the current reality of young scientists. What challenges do they face? How can we address them? What do they need the most?


The answers to these questions led us to create our upcoming TCCI Post-doc Program. We will give it a cooler name. Since it is going to cultivate the next generation of world science leaders, it needs a cooler name.


This will be a project that TCCI truly operates on its own. I hope it could eventually grow into an institute that addresses the big questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Neuroscientists are our starting point. In the future, the program will include philosophers, theologians, sociologists, and psychologists.


Now that you have a clear view of which scientists you would like to support, what will the management mechanism be like?

Chen Tianqiao: We are still finalizing the details but after our extensive research and conversations with many scientists, I am confident this program will be different from other post-doc programs. I have absolute faith in the distinctive values that our program will bring to the young scientists.


In terms of the idea of combining enterprises and schools/research institutes, how do you think presidents of US colleges might react?

Chen Tianqiao: Nowadays, university presidents have two main concerns. One is interdisciplinary collaboration. Once a scientist dives into his project, he or she will often be too absorbed to notice anything else. Therefore, inspiring interdisciplinary collaboration is an important issue. It is also one of the biggest issues facing the entire scientific field.


The second concern is funding for young scientists, which is a very difficult one. Because regardless if we are talking about government funding or donations from philanthropists, they will always seek to minimize risk and support established scientists like Nobel Laureate Awardees first. Because if a project fails, the government needs to take responsibility. As for philanthropists, they also often choose to support people who have already succeeded, for example, the most well-known scientist in the research of a particular disease.


For this reason, young scientists struggle to get funding for their own personal research. They often have to rely on the financial support of principal investigators, but each grant is given to a particular project. What young scientists truly need is funding that allows them to do research with freedom.


How many scientists has TCCI decided to work with?

Chen Tianqiao: We will be launching this project later this year. Eventually, we want to work with up to 300 to 400 people each year.


So TCCI has now opened its gates and welcomed young scientists working on the brain and mind from around the world. How is this program related to the projects at Caltech and in Shanghai?

Chen Tianqiao: There is no direct connection. These partnerships are managed by Huashan Hospital and Caltech, and we are involved in management at the board level. But this post-doc program will be directly operated by TCCI. There will of course be some overlap and the different programs will complement each other in certain ways, but they have squarely different ways of management and operation.


In the future, if some of this research becomes a commercial project in the future, what will be the plan for ownership and distribution of profits?

Chen Tianqiao: I have not given this a lot of thought because profit is not the objective. If we wanted to make money, there are better ways to do it. We are now committed to helping the young generation of scientists contribute to society. Of course, if they leap forward with revolutionary breakthroughs, we will be in a position to help them.


We (Shanda) already have an excellent venture capital platform. As a cornerstone LP, we plan to invest in 40 technology focused funds that are in their early stages. We have so far invested in twelve funds, and aim to reach 40 before the end of 2019.


If you are going to start enrolling young scholars this year, are you going to interview all of them?

Chen Tianqiao: Yes, that’s for sure. We have an advisory committee that will review the academic qualifications of candidates but Chrissy and I will interview the finalists and our questions will not be limited to their academic performance. For example, we may ask them how their research might impact society. We may assess a person’s leadership skills or their willingness to work with others.


How do you think getting sick affected the trajectory of your career and your life experience?

Chen Tianqiao: My sickness gave me a “stop sign.” While there are many traffic officers and traffic lights in China, in the US, you often see a red stop sign at intersections. All drivers have to obey the sign. Even if there is no one on the street, you still have to come to a complete stop for two seconds.


Our lives are like driving. When you get used to driving, you often forget your final destination. You make money everyday. You issue reports each quarter. You consider how you increase earnings for the next report? But are these the destinations of life? We need a stop sign for us to pause for two seconds and come back to the task of driving itself. My sickness was my stop sign. You may say, it changed my life.


Was this when you started to pay attention to the brain science field?

Chen Tianqiao: Yes. It was around 2013 when we were preparing for the delisting and 2014 when the delisting was completed, Chrissy and I started to reflect on the next chapters in our life.


One option was to go back to China and continue doing what we did. After the delisting of Shanda, someone from a large private equity firm flew to Singapore trying to persuade me to relist in China. He told me that I would become the richest person again. Back then, the game business could earn a hundredfold premium. Shanda’s profits were multiple billions, and they were all ours after the delisting. We had no debt at all. So I asked him “I became the richest person in China when I was 31, why would I want to repeat my life now when I am 40?”


Clearly, our next option was the following: If we no longer wanted to compete over wealth, we needed to ponder how we could contribute to society. There are many ways to do charity. Some people told me to help the poor and some asked me to focus on education. These are both great ideas but when we thought deeper, we realized the only way to drive the entire society and humankind forward was through science. Supporting education or the research of a disease might be helpful for a particular community yet we all have brains. We all age, and have the possibility of having mental health problems. So we concluded that the brain science field was the key to the future.


Another reason is that I am Buddhist. I have an inquiring mind about the truth of this world. I live with severe anxiety. As a patient, you lose fear after taking a pill. I am fascinated by the questions such as “whether I am a ‘robot’ or a person with free will.”


Buddhism teaches people that life is suffering, so we started to focus on solving the issue of suffering. One great example is pain, as it has proven to be determined by our brains. Many soldiers do not feel pain after losing an arm during battles. On the other hand, many people could still feel the pain of their fingers after the amputation of their hands. Pain, as well as happiness, is in fact created by our brains.


As the paths grow and merge, one will find brain science a very interesting direction. We consider ourselves very lucky for having this much wealth at this young age and being able to invest it in such a significant field. We would have lost our money if we did it 30 years ago, and we might not contribute as much if we did it 10 years later. We believe that brain science will likely see a revolutionary discovery or breakthrough within the next 10 to 20 years.


When you say breakthroughs within the next 10 years, do you have clear expectations?

Chen Tianqiao: There is no end to the exploration of the human brain. The breakthroughs I have been talking about is a progression of stages.


For instance, what exactly is memory? What is the mechanism of memory? We actually have no idea. If we could have a disruptive discovery regarding memory, the whole education sector would face a complete change.


Let’s say we learn how brains perceive the world. We would be able to manipulate and influence our brains. I could create all kinds of imagery in your brain without a heavy helmet. Take dreams for example, if we could understand how dreams are formed and control our dreams, the current entertainment industry would be revolutionized.


How do humans make decisions? Where does fear or greed come from? What is reason? What is the mechanism of decision making process? If we could figure these things out, the way we make investments would be changed completely, and a real artificial intelligence would be born.


If humans could use brains to communicate directly with the outside world, including robots, vehicles and even houses, we would be able to control our surroundings. Our modern manufacturing industry would be different.


The most unbelievable technology predictions about for the future of mankind are brain-related. I can’t predict which one of them will achieve the most dramatic progress, but there will be incredible breakthroughs. Even one such substantial development will have a greater impact than information technology did.


We were discussing stop signs earlier – do you drive now?

Chen Tianqiao: No. I am counting on self-driving cars. There is no need for people to worry about that.


You mentioned that you are a Buddhist. But when you talk about brain science, you are already the owner of your body, and even playing the role of the God or Buddha. Do you find the roles of an “all-knowing” scientist and a Buddhist contradictory?

Chen Tianqiao: That depends on one’s understanding of Buddhism.


In my own understanding, Buddhism is a religion with the highest level of modern-day science. It can be manifested by the fact that Buddhism, unlike any other religion, does not claim the Buddha as the creator of all things. Buddha is a man, just like us; but he is an enlightened man who has penetrated the truth, and who tries to teach people that truth. On the other hand, scientists are a group of people who have yet to achieve the truth, and they share with people the truth they have comprehended so far.


Therefore, Buddhism and scientific research are not incompatible. My admiration of the Buddha is no different than my admiration towards scientists. Nonetheless, I do not worship the Buddha, who has never demanded me to do so. As the Diamond Sutra says, “He who seeks me in sound, cannot perceive the Tathagata.”


It is worth mentioning that the Buddha is someone who found the truth, but not the one (or the God) who created the truth. If one day, the truth that Buddha taught me is proven wrong by modern science, I will choose to believe science instead of the Buddha. Yet, based on my personal capability, intelligence and research so far, I find our research in human brains, the truth, as well as our comprehension of the world still within the scope of the truth that the Buddha has disclosed.


You mentioned you wanted to build a temple on campus. What kind of temple do you mean?

Chen Tianqiao: Religions have been exploring the ultimate truth of our world alone for thousands of years. No matter if their answers prove to be 100% right or wrong, I have great respect for all religions. I hope TCCI can also be an organization that researches the truth. But it is a scientific research organization rather than a religion so theology and religion studies should also be a part of it.


In terms of the temple I mentioned, you may see it as an attempt to modernize Buddhism. The practice of enshrining and worshipping the Buddha every day has its historical cause, but it is neither the Buddha’s intention nor the truth. Buddha said that “emptiness” or “voidness” is our teacher and the ultimate truth. I don’t know how to represent this “emptiness” in the temple, but at least this future temple will be somewhere one can research and reflect on “emptiness.”


From the perspective of brain science development, do you think it is feasible to accomplish brain backup or mind backup?

Chen Tianqiao: Theoretically, all goals are possible in science. It is just a matter of time. For Buddhists, everything is changeable and it is the so-called impermanence. Thus in theory, it is not necessarily true that everyone has to die. To back up one’s mind is one way of doing it. But what is the meaning of storing one’s memory? A hard drive is not the computer. It needs an operating system.


In the sense of ultimate philosophy, if you eventually succeed in copying the operating system, do you really become immortal in the way many people have been pursuing? Even if the answer is yes, I believe there are better solutions. But this is not the direction where TCCI or I am heading.


What are the better solutions?

Chen Tianqiao: There are too many. Let’s find another time to discuss more. It is an endless topic.




Due to time and publishing constraints, Tianqiao Chen and Jianyu Zou were not able to fully explore the topics covered during their phone interview. Chen expanded on their conversation below.


First, I want to talk about suffering, which is relatively simple. As I described earlier, suffering is the boat that takes us across the river or the finger that points at the moon. Our ultimate goal is to abandon suffering and obtain happiness. So when we talked about the “suffering experience”, you recognized the value of suffering as an approach. When I say “to be liberated from suffering”, however, I see it as the ultimate goal of my practice. We are not talking about the same thing, but I do agree with your opinion from the perspective of suffering as an approach.


Regarding the relationship between technology and the modernization of Buddhism, technology keeps satisfying our needs and indulging our desires, but we are moving further away from liberation and paying an increasingly higher price for this. It is exactly why I feel pessimistic about the future development of technology in this context. I believe our ultimate relief comes from the heart, through practice and enlightenment. I have faith, and I practice. During the past ten years of my practice, perhaps I have not improved in some senses, but it led me to contemplate the following:


If we could ever reach enlightenment with our heart alone, why do we need the forty-eight initial approaches to become a Buddhist believer? Why do we need rituals such as the four preliminaries, meditation, and mantra recitation?


By taking the same approaches, why can certain people enter the samadhi readily while the rest are easily distracted? Why are some awakened while others are not?


Can we find new “approaches” to help average people to get closer to awakening or to relieve them from suffering and be liberated? Regarding these questions, I have the following thoughts:


First, if a fundamental doctrine of Buddhism such as “emptiness” belongs to the scope of science, the corresponding rituals such as breathing and meditation would be the technology. All technology is essentially a method that people summarize as an effective rule. Therefore, the Buddha does not reject technology. We cannot deny the necessity of these approaches simply because some eminent monks can reach enlightenment without practice. By the same token, we cannot deny the possibility that there might be better technology out there which more followers could benefit from.


Second, is it possible to make up the gap in perceptive ability between two people? If a Buddhist truly follows the doctrine of “emptiness”, this gap can be bridged. Otherwise, there would be a “me” that is too stubborn to be changed, which is in contradiction with the concept of impermanence. Thus, these technologies are not only necessary but also practical.


Third, the Buddha created the forty-eight approaches thousands of years ago according to the cognitive and perceptive ability of the people at that time. However, in this Dharma Ending Age, these approaches are far less effective for the contemporary generation. The Buddha would be upset to see us still using the same method that he used to teach ancient people.


After visiting more than three hundred neuroscientists, I am more and more confident that new approaches to Buddhism need to be combined with the latest scientific discovery of human beings and neuroscience in particular. To take aggression for example, we often say that a person who becomes aggressive easily practices poorly, whereas an optimist possesses an intrinsic Buddhist aptitude. We can actually understand this difference in Buddhist aptitude as the following: their brains have different ways of discharging the neurons that process aggression. Just as some are taller and some are shorter, this phenomenon is not vague or insubstantial, but simply an objective reality. If we change the ways they discharge the neurons, an optimist could also experience road rage. To be sure, practices can change people. But just like herbal medicine, some people might find it effective immediately, while others might never be able to alter their neural discharge pattern through practice alone.


In conclusion, in order for us to reach enlightenment, abandon suffering and achieve happiness, we need to rely on technology that seeks answers from the inner world rather than that satisfies our ever-growing desires. Our scope of research includes: What are emotions? What is delusion, greed and aversion? What is the biological basis of love and no love, or mercy and no mercy? How do humans make decisions? Why do our reasons sometimes fail to control our desires? Who am I? How do we prove a “non-self?” What exactly is emptiness? What does awakening and consciousness really mean?


There is no ultimate truth that can be proved by science on this earth. The ultimate truth only exists in absolute faith. It is a shame that the contemporary generation might never be able to reach it.

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