Tianqiao Chen Moves to His Silicon Valley
This article is a translation of an article written and produced by Thecorestory x Guyu Lab. You can find the original Chinese article here: https://www.huxiu.com/article/322707.html
More than money, love, medicine or time, it is truth that gives one freedom.
Text: Wei Ling
Photo: Feng Xinhui; Editor: Lin Shanshan; Production: Guyu x Thecorestory
Bathing in the California sun, Menlo Park had been shining since the early morning. The water was emanating a stunning turquoise glow. There was no shadow. It was a clean and almost dazzling place. Tianqiao Chen relocated here three years ago, aspiring to do that one thing in his mind right.
It was a sturdy red-brick building, in the center of which a giant tree casts shade over the courtyard and outdoor furniture. Two printed signs stood on the front lawn, one for Shanda and the other for Morgan Stanley. The buildings were surrounded by lawns and brush. Looking darker than in their home in China, some koi fish were swimming in the pond with their glimmering bellies.
Chen has changed. He started to wear braces, and has quit alcohol and sugar. To overcome his genetic addiction to sweets, he held a “sugar-quitting ceremony” in his kitchen. His three daughters in turn gave him a hug and kiss as a nod to working as his supervisors. “They are my bosses. My three bosses keep their eyes on me every day,” said Chen. He did not even get one single bite from their birthday cakes.
Chen would rather spend time contemplating, so his practice could last longer. It is not easy, but being able to do it will boost one’s confidence no end. He has big eyes. He is not overweight, but he looks big; once he sat in his chair, it looked as if he was welded to it. “The decision of relocating is more emotional than rational,” he said. Silicon Valley is the hometown for the Internet and innovation and since he is planning to spend the rest of his life focusing on science, he’d better stay somewhere that gives him a sense of security.
He booked a private jet to come here. If you happen to know someone struggling with severe anxiety and panic attacks, you would know that taking a flight requires enormous courage—enough to kill an elephant. No kidding. He had three companies listed on Wall Street, but no one rang the bell. When working with Harvard and MIT, the presidents had to fly over the Pacific Ocean to meet him in person. Many other affairs and moments were not able to get him on a plane. Yet, as magical as the Aladdin fairy tale, it was a piece of news, filled with hope and fantasy, that finally got him on the “magic carpet.” The news indicated that neuroscientist Richard A. Andersen from Caltech had made it possible for a paralyzed man to move a robotic arm with his mind.
Chen saw that robotic arm waving at him across the ocean, as if it was greeting a brilliant future, a life not to be teased or fooled by the chemical signals in the brain. When Chen boarded that plane, he was 42 years old. He then figured out one thing: more than money, love, medicine, or time, it is truth that gives one freedom. As the plane’s engines howled, he thought to himself, if it was the only correct way of solving problems, he’d better start working.
At the age of 28, Chen launched his gaming business. He raised $300,000 and purchased the Chinese rights to Legend of Mir II, licensing the game from a Korean company; he was rewarded with 60 million users. At the age of 31, fortune poured over him like a crazy rainfall and his assets soared up to 15 billion RMB. That day, Chen and his wife took a walk in Shanghai Fuxing Park, where he bought a newspaper on which an article read “The Youngest Wealthiest Person.” He laid the newspaper on the grass and lied on it. With eyes closed, three equally intense thoughts occurred to him: the article proved him to be an able player in the money-making game; he felt no joy; then what?
Alcohol is a hoax. Sweets and drugs are tricks of dopamine. Chen is as self-disciplined as a Puritan. Perhaps deep in his heart, he loathes deception. Is fear a ruse? Why are some people afraid of one thing while others aren’t? The same year when Chen lied down in Fuxing Park, a man who was four years older than Chen hailed a taxi, stopped at a gas station, bought a gas can, drove to Chen’s office building, and poured the gasoline all over himself. The man then took out a lighter from his pocket and requested to see Chen. He said, “I don’t want to hurt anyone or myself. I’m here to solve a problem.” The problem he was referring to was to get back his virtual tools that had disappeared in the game. The man lost his equipment because Chen made a change in the settings a few days previous. Too nervous, the man mistakenly lit the lighter. Flame climbed up the poor man’s clothes and a cloud of black smoke swelled. Fire extinguishers, more smoke, ambulance, second degree burns, another news article, stock price fluctuation, people talking…That afternoon was a long time ago.
A strange man, on a normal day, before going home after work, came to your office and burnt himself, all because you changed a line of code in a game. “What comes in between input and output?” Chen thought.
People live in the feelings of their brains. But the human brain is a black box.
After the long flight over the ocean, he took some time finding his way to the destination at Caltech. As he walked down the marble hallway with his jet-lagged, foggy brain, he stumbled upon the school motto which said, “The truth shall make you free.” Not long after that, he made the decision to establish a neuroscience institute at the university. “I’ll first put down one billion dollars,” Chen made his promise at the donation ceremony. Professor Andersen, who put the robotic arm in motion, was appointed Director of Brain-Machine Interface Center at the new institute.
For four continuous years, Chen has continued meeting with neuroscientists – almost as if he has put himself on a production line. Organized and never absent, he has conducted a comprehensive survey of US universities and institutes. From California to New York, and Washington to Arizona, he has met with over 300 scientists. He listens attentively, takes notes, and asks questions. Like what journalists always do, he tosses professor A’s questions to professor B, C and D, and makes cross-references. Also in Chen’s roster were 28 presidents of the best colleges, who described to him the schools’ next ten-year vision in the brain science discipline.
At night, Chen studies the two brain science textbooks –for undergraduate students that the Stanford University President gave him—to learn both language and knowledge at the same time.
This is not a big deal. One fact Chen has realized long ago is that money, if not used with intelligence and willpower, can only be exchanged for very limited things – things that are not worthy. Businessmen only trust numbers and their own eyes. What Chen is paying for now is “undefined things.” It is like you are making a bet on the marathon winner before the race even begins, and moreover, you are betting with your life savings. “There is no light, no guideline. You are a blind man.”
Chen is now 46 years old. The clock is ticking faster. It is forcing him to make choices in how he wants to spend his time. He needs to prioritize among the easy goals, hard goal,s impractical goals and the must-do goals.
The promised land of science is not static. An article from The New Yorker claims that the situation is going to change in less than two years. The internet companies and entrepreneurs once considered the creative innovators and pilots of our era are now being compared with Standard Oil and other monopolies from the gilded age.
If “cool” is the only standard for evaluating youth, is the internet growing old? Being a journalist allows me to walk into other people’s houses and see how they live. I’ve seen the “equipped” ones—tycoons, entrepreneurs, art market successors, and celebrities. They often choose comfort over reality and prefer things as they are more than changes. It is the grease that oozes from your soul that eventually erodes your aspirations.
I will never know how Chen makes his decision. Perhaps he was born with a different factory default to the rest of us. Perhaps the illness he experienced was his wake-up call.
Once for three months, Chen suffered continuously from panic attacks. When he was walking outside after the sunset, his wife would follow him keeping a slight distance.
“In case he needs anything and is too uncomfortable talking or if doesn’t want to, I can be there in no time.”
Married life taught Chrissy Luo that she “must have a clear understanding of her partner.” “Some like money; some like retirement life; some like fishing.” But the man Qianqian married is not one of them.
Chen is truly grateful for marriage. He can recite the exact same words that his wife said at every intersection of his life, and he remembers clearly how he benefited from each of them. “He said that I reminded him of this and that, but that wasn’t me…I am like the reminder in his phone. He knows his things,” said Qianqian.
During panic attacks, nerves can be as brittle as the thread of a spider web. It is better if she “does not exist” to worry about and do things for him that aren’t seen or known by him. “His condition does not show physical symptoms. You don’t need to dab the sweat off or get him oxygen. It all happens in his mind.”
Lasting for about 10 minutes each time, panic attacks reach their peak shortly and then begin to subside. People who suffer from the disorder usually don’t believe they will go away so quickly, but it is in fact the case. He and she walked in the dark one after the other, waiting for the dread to dissipate.
Chen told me repeatedly that he had no “story” to tell and he used “reason” and “problem-solving” to take actions. “If a person uses a knife to stab you at this particular spot with certain strength and the knife happens to be sharp, of course you will die. But you will not kill yourself simply because someone is going to stab you. What you can do is to try and avoid it.”
Explanations get dreary when there are too many of them, but Chen can certainly explain many things. His secretary believed that Chen’s temper improved after he moved here. Chen does not think he and Elon Musk have a competitive relationship, even though both of them have been announcing similar results related to the brain. “We have different goals,” said Chen. Sooner or later Musk is going to put a chip in every normal brain, but Chen refuses to take any anti-anxiety pills. 5mg of Lexapro or escitalopram—the pure Senantiomer of the racemic bicyclic phthalate derivative citapogram—is sufficient to inhibit the reuptake of 5-HT by central neurons, or in other words to interfere with panic attacks.
“My way of dealing with it is to sell all my companies. It is a more organic way.”
The Internet field in China is constantly changing, and Chen knows this. But he has lost his interest in the theories of John von Neumann or attempts to make computers simulate human brains. “If plenty of data could produce awareness or if humans are the results of apes collecting data, shouldn’t we be witnessing more and more apes walking out of the forest? 500,000 years should have been enough. But why isn’t it happening?” Chen expressed joy at winning the debate, “I’m not investing one penny in neural networks.”
“A to B, B to C…what are these for? They are nothing more than the ripples caused by the drop of that very first rock.” Chen swiped his phone and started to read his WeChat message to Tencent CEO Ma Huateng, “You’ve been doing it for 20 years and your passion has not dropped a bit. It is amazing that your state of health allows…”
Chen’s competitive heart prevails occasionally. But like a seasonal flu, he can soon recover after a boast. He also does “window shopping” of a well-known American news magazine that he holds himself back from acquiring. “This is harder than quitting sugar,” he sat at the Brain Science plaza waiting for someone for a meeting, “Industry’s bottlenecks can only be solved by academia.”
He knows what entertainment is about. All the technology that we now have are games that trick our brains, like a rabbit from the hat. From theater to movies, and games to VR/AR, magic gets upgraded and exhausting. “Why do you have to cheat your brain rather than hack your brain?” said Chen. You should show more respect for the enemy you don’t know. Confront them and stop cheating with external tools!
The third year after Chen moved, neuroscientist Richard Andersen at the TCCI Brain-Computer Interface Center made a patient who had permanently lost his sense of touch feel things crawling on his hand. That was a 100% simulated experience that did not exist in reality.
“It proves that the world can be the imagination of our brain.” Chen said.
Like a chill that one feels after setting a foot in the morning snow, Chen knew at once that he was getting closer to the core.
Interview Transcript: Thestorycore with Tianqiao Chen and Chrissy Luo
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Shall we start? Doing philanthropic work seems a lot busier than I thought. Were you in a meeting?
Tianqiao Chen: Professors from an Arizona university and UCSD came this afternoon to discuss an idea with me, hoping to get our support. It was very interesting. They said that external forces and technology could help achieve “awareness.”
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: ”Awareness” as in Buddhism?
Tianqiao Chen: Yes. They said they could help you focus and be peaceful. A brain device. See, this is a very interesting field. You must have real passion and absolute faith in the significant impact that the future will bring about in order to be fully immersed in what you do.
People find Chinese entrepreneurs rich and think that we offer high prices to buy things. Well, recently they don’t allow you to do so, because they think the Chinese entrepreneurs are buying up the world. But I was just talking to Yidan [Chen Yidan, philanthropist and co-founder of Tencent] about whether we could provide the world with a different impression of Chinese entrepreneurs—not only buying things but also giving out things.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: From earning money to giving out money, what has changed?
Tianqiao Chen: It is harder to give out money than to take in money. It is easy to define your return from earning. There is a number for it. On the other hand, you cannot use any currency to measure the return from giving out money. Social impact is incalculable. You can’t see it. There is no light, no guideline. You are a blind man.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: I’m curious. Do you care about the quantifiable return when you give out money?
Tianqiao Chen: TCCI is a scientific research institute. We give people funds and hope to discover the truth. Of course I care about whether the money I give might solve a specific problem in scientific research. If the answer is yes, does it fit in the two directions (disease treatment and brain development) that we have set at the beginning? If you tell me that you have found the zebrafish’s neuron that controls its sleep, what does it have to do with me? Does it have a direct relationship with treating insomnia? I need to evaluate these things. Such a non-pecuniary return takes longer than you think. You might get it in ten years, or never.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Do you challenge the scientists with lots of questions?
Tianqiao Chen: I always ask questions. Today, for example, I asked the professor how he is going to solve the damage that the device brings to neurons. The second question was how he is locating “awareness” in the brain? Third, how to experiment with this device on humans so that the public could actually benefit from it and it won’t be just an idea? I asked these questions one by one. I only give money after I figure these out.
This is the difficult part. We need to evaluate whether he is a good marathon runner when he has only made it five meters in the race.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Is it possible?
Tianqiao Chen: It is very hard. You know that your judgment could be wrong and you will be wasting your money. But you need to keep going anyway.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Do professors feel stressed when talking to you?
Tianqiao Chen: Yes, and they should! We are talking about different generations of philanthropists here. My generation is tough to work with. If I was 70 or 80 years old, I would find a well-known nobel prize winner and give my money to that person, or put up my name on a building. That should be easy enough to see!
But we are different. I earned every penny myself. I didn’t inherit it from my father. I am in my 40s this year, and I have at least 40 more years to enjoy and to see results. If I invest my money only to find out it was for nothing, I would feel heartbroken.
If I am 90 years ago and the money’s gone, so be it. I won’t see it anyway, you know? So I have to study hard, pay attention to what they are doing, and not squander my money.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: You just mentioned that the things you are doing now are harder than earning money. It requires you to make judgments continuously.
Tianqiao Chen: Yes. We are talking about the fundamental questions of life. Life is connected by a thread of decisions. Who makes those decisions? Your brain?
The human brain is a black box. We have input and output, but we don’t know anything in between. At our best, we once had 40 million online players in our game at the same time. Then we changed some data. A man came to Shanda and burnt himself, whereas others were happy with the change. Why did the same input generate such different output? We have no idea. We can only run tests. Ok, A gives me C. But I don’t want C. So I try B. B also gives us C. Because I don’t like C, so I cross out A and B.
Say that I know person A is going inside a house to kill someone and person B is going to do the same thing, so I forbid them from entering the house. But in this process, why does A kill people when walking inside a house and C does not? How do their brains process? If we can figure this out and open the black box, I believe the output will be filled with beauty and happiness.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Even the best brains on earth have to make choices. Would you prefer solving problems you are able to crack in this lifetime, or dealing with more ambitious questions that you might never be able to answer? It seems to me that you would go with the second choice.
Tianqiao Chen: You need to know where your self is and how it is formed. I don’t think I can solve this myth in my lifetime. But during the quest, we could bring forth many side products that could all be revolutionary. For example, we might be able to treat depression or to speed up memorization. I might not be able to let you download dreams like in the movie Inception, but I may allow you to wake up from a dream and continue that same dream when you sleep again. I might make it happen within 20 years.
I don’t know what your nightmares are but if a specific neuron indicates a nightmare, I will stop it for you; if it is a happy dream, I will repeat the stimulation, so you can continue that dream.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Was that a personal wish of yours?
Tianqiao Chen: Every single one of them is a wish. I hope they are yours too. If dreams can be connected, they will be the ultimate entertainment. You can see tigers, lions, your spouse in the dream. And they feel real. They give you touch, sight, sound and even emotions. You see, your brain doesn’t even need your body!
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: I wonder what wishes come from your own desire rather than reason or betterment of the society.
Tianqiao Chen: To be honest, I can make all my personal dreams come true. I don’t need to be a philanthropist to realize them. If I want to eat, drink and live a long life, I can invest in drug manufacturers. I don’t need to do what I do now. My personal interests do not need me to give other people money. If I have a peculiar interest in something, I can hire a scientist and build a lab. There is no need for such a big framework.
I use top-down thinking all the time. I’ve always wondered what the ultimate entertainment is. It must be something that your heart feels genuinely happy about and something that can activate all your sensory experiences. For me, that is the dream. Today’s technology doesn’t allow us to manipulate dreams yet. Say you want to kill a dinosaur. I don’t think we can send you to kill a dinosaur in your dream in the foreseeable future.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: How many professors have you asked about the dinosaur question?
Tianqiao Chen: More than 300.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: They told you that they couldn’t do it?
Tianqiao Chen: Sometimes I would toss the question to them directly. Other times I learnt it from our conversations. If they told me they couldn’t do C, which I believed to be crucial to dream downloads, I wouldn’t ask the question to make myself look stupid.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Did the technology here help you with your panic attacks?
Tianqiao Chen: There are drugs for panic attacks. But like I said just now, A goes in and C comes out, but we don’t know what happens in between. Drugs have their side effects. My way of dealing with panic attacks is to sell all my companies.
When I sold my companies at their highest values, Tencent was about 70 to 80% of our values. I sold all the things that brought me pressure, so I could freely pursue what I truly want. For the last ten to twenty years, I’ve piled up tons of questions which later became the sources of some of my pressure.
After I delisted the companies, many funds came to me and said, “You can become the wealthiest man again if you list your companies in China. You can be the person with hundreds of billions of dollars.” But my wife said, “You became the wealthiest person when you were 30 years old. What’s the point of being that same person when you are 40? Why can’t you do something different that excites you?”
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Then you made a really cool decision.
Tianqiao Chen: My wife said that I should first open up my brain and see how my reward system works. I never feel joy from repeating and copying. To take gaming for example, we were the first one who made it free of charge. The whole society balked, and our stock price fell to $11 from $40. I remember complaining to the president of NYSE saying, “Wall Street does not understand me.” He said If he were them, he would sell my stock too, because I all of a sudden made the money-makers free!
We built our literature platform [Shanda Literature] from zero, but we sold it only at one billion. I didn’t want it anymore because I started to get nothing but repetitions. I don’t feel happiness from repeating and keeping things as they are.
I rested for a year in Singapore due to my illness, and decided to hit my stride back. Then my wife said, “this is the best opportunity to climb a new mountain.” From 2013 to 2015, I spent my time thinking what else I could do if I left the industry; what is my joy?; what is the best way of spending my fortune? For both rational and emotional reasons, we also put lots of money in education, and gave to the poor and sick children. But in the end, we realized that our brains are the root of everything, so we sold everything we owned. I was born a Taurus and in the year of the ox. I truly think that I should sell everything and focus my energy on this one thing.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: This is a question out of my own curiosity. To sell so much fortune and such a large-scale enterprise all at once, it must’ve felt really good!
Tianqiao Chen: The moment of selling did feel good, but what followed was stress. When I was at Shanda, I did not watch how the stocks were doing. As long as I kept working hard, the price would go up gradually each quarter. But now I don’t have a company or that feeling of control. I invest in others and wonder if they will work hard. This sense of uncertainty is always with me, even now. So the good feeling only lasted temporarily.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: You are at your work mode now.
Tianqiao Chen: Yes, very much so. You see, I was just talking to Ma Huateng, saying “the industry is too chaotic. You’ve been doing it for 20 years and your passion has not dropped a bit. This is not easy.” He replied, “That I cannot say.” I said, “It is amazing that your state of health allows. My body cannot afford it.” At the end, I made one final comment, “It is my own opinion, but repetitions are boring.” The Internet in China seems to be growing but it is in fact repeating itself. Rounds and rounds of web portals, gaming, e-commerce, AI, Cloud… etc. What are these for? They are nothing more than the ripples caused by the drop of that very first stone, called information technology, into the pond. What I want to do is to find the next stone.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: So you did not quit the race of finding the next rock.
Tianqiao Chen: Of course not. I don’t believe we will ever be able to create a biochemical robot if our AI only follows the von Neumann architecture. However, if we follow the direction of understanding the brain, we will be able to succeed.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: That is to say you do not invest in any simulations that are built on the von Neumann architecture.
Tianqiao Chen: No. I did not invest one penny in it. I invested all my money in brain science. Many people told me that they were making chips or exploring neural networks. But I believe they are just ideas, far different from the reality.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: In the field of brain science, is knowing how awareness is created the question you find the most interesting?
Tianqiao Chen: Yes. The ultimate question is to know what the world actually is and what is its truth. We have two ways of knowing the truth. One is to explore the outside world, space; and the other is to search our inner world. Since our vision is generated by the brain’s perception, I think to explore the inside is the correct way of finding the truth. Knowing the truth sets humans free. Why did I invest in Caltech? The first reason is their motto, which really touches me. It says “the truth shall make you free.” For me, I need to find the truth—what is my fear.
During this quest, there are many small goals along the way, some of which are worldly ones related to entertainment and education. But in the end, my wife and I both agree that we need to find the ultimate truth. I don’t think my generation or the next generation will be able to find it.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Does selling companies and doing what you like protect you from fear?
Tianqiao Chen: They can prevent most of it, but they cannot guarantee it. Who knows what will trigger the condition again. If you study brain structures and brain knowledge every day, when fear comes, you will be self-conscious about the fact that fear is simply the release of certain chemicals. It is the bioelectrical signals, not the real problem. But only when you finally find out how the brain works, can humans truly be free and liberated.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: That is the moment when humans have no fear.
Tianqiao Chen: Yes. Humans do not need useless and unnecessary fear.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Your way of overcoming fear is in fact a brave way of confronting it.
Tianqiao Chen: Yes. You have to confront it. Why did I fall ill at my peak? I could’ve done better and greater things.
My anxiety came from the fact that I wasn’t allowed to work any more. When I left in 2009, Alibaba was just a to-B company and Tencent Games was about 70 or 80% of our size. I wondered why it was me who fell ill. Why didn’t the opportunity fall upon me? Now I’m long past that stage. This thought only comes to me occasionally, like a mind flu.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Do you still get this mind flu now?
Tianqiao Chen: Sometimes when I see something, I would say, “If I were there, I would’ve done it this way.” That must be the flu.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: It seems that the industry, including many large companies, have recently started to pay attention to basic science.
Tianqiao Chen: All philanthropists and entrepreneurs are very mature. When they make this decision, they must have seen that basic science is about to have major breakthroughs and realized that young scientists are the weak spot. Industry’s bottlenecks can only be solved by academia. This is something everyone agrees with.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: You shifted from investing in institutions to investing in individuals directly.
Tianqiao Chen: Right. I took away the middle part. Actually I didn’t. I’m doing both. Universities have barely changed for hundreds of years; they have both traditional values and limitations. We entrepreneurs are amateurs, but what is good about it is that we have no burden.
Chrissy Luo: We can look at this question from another angle, that is what we need in addition to the existing framework. The idea of inter-school, interdisciplinary, and global collaboration is extremely hard to be realized in our social structure that is built with barricades. We need to think outside the box and to come up with a new model.
Tianqiao Chen: I always tell my energetic friends who have reached financial freedom to do the things they want to do if they are interested in a specific field. Do not be afraid of making mistakes. Even failure can make a great case study. You can then warn people not to do things in your way which is a waste of money. But if you succeed, you will bring enormous value to society.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: We can see that Shanda has become very active in its investments.
Tianqiao Chen: First, you need sustainable funds. Secondly, you cannot put all your energy on daily operations, like how Ma Huateng runs his company. Investment is the only way you can earn money. 70% to 80% of my energy is put into the operation of TCCI, and the remaining 20% to 30% allows me to do this much.
But I don’t deny the fact that we are hungry for earning more money to help the brain science research. It indeed needs a lot of funds. If we see the entire humankind as an expedition team, we non-scientists would be the logistics team, right? Scientists are marching forward alone and exploring the unknown. If they look back at us and see that we don’t have enough funds for them, that will be the shame of us, the logistics team.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: You mentioned earlier that people shared the same belief that a critical point is approaching in science. How do we understand this critical point?
Tianqiao Chen: In a narrow sense, breakthroughs in the treatment of major diseases and industries might be very close.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: What do you mean by “close?”
Tianqiao Chen: In the next five to ten years, we will have breakthroughs in AI and in the treatment of depression and anxiety.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Many have said that Elon Musk and TCCI have similar projects on brain science. Is he your strongest opponent?
Tianqiao Chen: Elon Musk and I are not on the same page. Musk’s goal and dream is to put a chip in every normal person’s brain. His fear of AI causes him to overreact, such as to sew electrodes in people’s brains and to send people to Mars. But I don’t think this danger is so pressing.
In fact, to achieve groundbreaking development in BMI (brain-machine interface) we needs to solve two conflicting problems: signal accuracy and damage. So far there is no way of intercepting signals without opening the skull; if we open the skull, we can receive every neural signal. Musk can only test on mice but not humans in the meantime. Even though he claims it to have “minimal damage”, his way of doing it still creates damage since it needs to sew a thread into the brain.
If we can open the skull, our lab is already capable of controlling neurons accurately. We can make paralyzed patients feel things crawling on him. We can make the music notes in one’s mind become actual music played by a piano immediately.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: More and more competent entrepreneurs are entering the brain science field. Do you feel excited?
Tianqiao Chen: I do. There is not really an “opponent” in philanthropy. I don’t steal your talents, and you don’t hack my stuff. We are all collaborators. If Musk throws one billion at my thing and makes it work, I’d feel thrilled.
Chrissy Luo: If we eliminate poverty to make your foundation workless, isn’t that happy competition?
Tianqiao Chen: I told Ma Huateng that he had to pay attention to the brain science field which is really exciting.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Are you happy with your progress so far?
Tianqiao Chen: So far so good. Caltech is a great partner, and our collaboration with Huashan Hospital and Shanghai Mental Health Center has been very smooth. We are pushing four or five projects forward, and bringing lab results further. It took us about two to three years to build a new model which we are now developing and to support young scientists. We were still discussing even last night and this morning. This morning I was leaving for a meeting. Qianqian (Chrissy) chased me to the car and told me about her new ideas on the road.
Chrissy Luo: The two of us were having a debate.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: When do you expect to implement the model?
Tianqiao Chen: We are aiming for this fall. We want to make it perfect. The academic world is complicated. But like I said, the business world or making money is easy because everything can be measured by money. Academia has its dignity. There are the issues of secrecy, expert systems, evaluation, etc.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: This is very interesting. If you want to be more productive, you need to break the barriers.
Tianqiao Chen: You are right. We hope the products of our design can be both disruptive and well-received. You need to make the school happy and not upset the department. If you make the department happy, you can’t upset the postdoc. It is like a game. But luckily I am an expert in game design.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: As this critical point approaches, will you reconsider starting a business?
Tianqiao Chen: It is what I am doing now. I have some new ideas, but I haven’t found like-minded people in those I’ve invested in. I’ve earned myself some time to start a business.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: In which field?
Tianqiao Chen: There are multiple.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: But not like the ones you had before?
Tianqiao Chen: Of course not.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: So far, which TCCI result is the most exciting one to you?
Tianqiao Chen: For me, it is that the Brain Machine Interface can make one’s brain generate sensations with artificial stimulations. In the physical reality, this person is paralyzed from the neck down. He could not have felt anything because all his nerves are broken. But after we controlled his nerves, he could feel things crawling on his skin. Philosophically, it indicates that the world is our brain’s imagination. Nothing is crawling on your hand in reality, but the brain can make it that way.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Why did you move here? Why Silicon Valley?
Tianqiao Chen: To be honest, me moving here is not necessarily the right choice. But emotionally, Silicon Valley gives me the sense of security and belonging. I benefit from that stone and this is where the stone was first dropped. So I naturally followed the ripples back here. The decision is more emotional than rational.
It is fortunate that we can travel the world. If any place can bring us closer to the truth or help us realize our goals, we will move there without hesitation.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: You don’t go back to China often now, do you?
Tianqiao Chen: I still do, but I try to avoid it as much as I can. I try not to take a flight. I don’t even travel in the US.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: I remember one detail that says you have successfully brainwashed your daughters to become brain science researchers when they grow up.
Tianqiao Chen: Yes. Yes. Kids of course don’t understand what is so great about this. So I told them, “You see, daddy’s hair is getting grayer. Do you want me to grow old?” They said, “No. No.” I said, “You need to learn brain science, because what actually grows old is the brain.” Now they make the same new year wish each year, hoping I can develop a drug for the brain as soon as possible to stop their father’s hair from getting older. I’m glad that my hair has greyed now. Each grey hair of mine urges my daughters onward.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Do you assign brain science homework to them?
Tianqiao Chen: So far I have never pushed them. I simply sowed a happy seed in their hearts. I told them that our family is meant to help humans solve their brain and mind issues; my generation might not able to figure out where humans come from, who we are, and why we live, but they need to keep looking for the truth.
Each of my daughters feels very proud. When my oldest daughter went to her first summer camp, she chose to study psychology; I think that is the result of my brainwashing.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: You said you want generations after generations to carry on with your research. Are you going to brainwash the next generation?
Tianqiao Chen: Sure! If that doesn’t work out, at least I’ll brainwash the next generation (laugh).
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: I remember you saying that you want most of your fortune to be a laying hen. Investments that are going to lay eggs for the sustainable support for brain science research. Only 2% to 3% will go to your kids.
Tianqiao Chen: Yes. My kids will be able to afford an upper middle-class lifestyle—in fact I think the money I left them is more than that. It will be enough. If they are not capable of spending the extra money or spending it well, it will become a responsibility or even a burden for them.
Chrissy Luo: We hope that brain science research or TCCI can be a legacy of our family, but it does not mean that our kids have to pass it on. Otherwise, it is too old-fashioned.
Tianqiao Chen: I am old-fashioned.
Chrissy Luo: It is what you are hoping for, but it might not happen.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Having this thought in mind, do you watch your kids at home and see if they have related hobbies or skills?
Tianqiao Chen: Logically, I need to accept the reality if none of my kids is interested or capable. But emotionally, I certainly hope that they can continue the things that we are doing. I certainly watch them all the time. Like brainwashing that I just mentioned, I am always doing something to develop their interests.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: What are your kids’ reaction? Do they see the earnestness in their father’s eyes?
Tianqiao Chen: The building of our Chen Institute was being roofed yesterday, and Caltech sent us an iron plate for this special occasion. All of our five family members signed our names on the plate which was later buried in the last beam. It will stay there forever. When the kids were signing their names, they were of course very proud.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: But that was a secret, right? People can’t see it because it’s hidden inside.
Tianqiao Chen: Yes. But we certainly have public ones, very big ones, too (laugh).
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: It is easy to be the target for blame if you are in the gaming business. It is like an original sin. However, working on brain science seems to earn you respect from people. From gaming to brain science, I wonder if you think you are doing the right things now, regardless of what other people say?
Tianqiao Chen: Many people think the same way as you do. Qianqian (Chrissy) has also asked me the same question. I honestly think that playing games is the best entertainment, because it leaves your body in reality but uploads your logic and action to a virtual community. In games, I can see millions of vigorous, naked souls and minds that are acting by certain rules. It is a very important motivation behind my decision to work on the brain. When I was still in the gaming industry, I kept wondering what the gamers were thinking. Why does this person excel at playing games and can still manage school life, but another person quits school instead? From games to humans, and the mind to the brain, I want to continue exploring the secrets.
People used to criticize me for developing games, and now they respect me. For me, I don’t care. I don’t care what people think about me. I left the company and moved to Singapore from Shanghai due to my illness. Many have said that Shanda was going down. I didn’t stand up and tell everyone I was sick because it had nothing to do with the company. We started innovating very early. Take the Shanda Pod for example, it was banned, but everyone kept saying it was a bad product which is not true.
I remember being awarded the Youngest Economic Person of the Year by CCTV. We did not have kids yet at that time. I went up on the stage and Wang Xiaoya asked me, “When your kids grow up, will you allow them to play games?” I replied, “Of course. Games are the best way for young people to connect with society.” Now my six-year old is already an expert in playing Minecraft.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Do they have strong self-control, or do you have a way to manage the kids?
Tianqiao Chen: Why don’t we make their screen time a reward? My kids might be clueless about money because they have everything. But if you behave well, I’ll give you 20 minutes or 50 minutes of game time. All of a sudden, games become the most helpful tool for us.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Do you still play?
Tianqiao Chen: Sometimes. I have quite a few games in here (Chen picked up his phone). Well, Go and Chinese chess, the one on Tencent, are what I play every day.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: What level are you at?
Tianqiao Chen: I’m at very high levels (laugh). People log into the games with their WeChat accounts. My WeChat name is Chen Tianqiao, so I have to play anonymously because I can’t play with my real name. Playing anonymously requires you to level up from zero each time. The highest score I have achieved is having “beaten 90% of the players.” But that was the level I got to after one or two hours of playing and I had to stop playing because of other business. It does not mean that I could only make this far. I could have defeated 95%. But that is my score.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: At what hours do you play?
Tianqiao Chen: Anytime! When chatting or in meetings.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Do you like the current version of you better?
Tianqiao Chen: You see, I have redone all my teeth (laugh). I’ve been taking some photos recently. I couldn’t find any photos of myself before I met Chrissy because I don’t see the point of recording. Why do people look back?
I was having a meal with a bunch of entrepreneurs the other day. They said, “Aah, I made the wrong investments.” I used to be like that, but now I tell them, “Look back at today in ten years! Yao Jinbo’s 8 billion today might become 80 or 90 billion. At that time, you will regret not buying his stock that has increased ten times by value when you are eating with him at the same table. So, come back to this moment from the future, buy his stocks now.” Do not look back. Look ahead! There are plenty of opportunities every day. Do not regret the mistakes you’ve made, because you have many other chances to make money in the future.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: Is it difficult to quit sugar?
Tianqiao Chen: Not really.
Thestorycore x Guyu Lab: What is more difficult for you than quitting sugar?
Tianqiao Chen: Business decisions. For example, you really want to buy a company, but your reasoning tells you not to because this company will drag you down. So you can only do window shopping. You walk up to the window and say, “Wow, this is beautiful.” But you have to leave after that. This is painful.
I’ve been talking with a global, well-known magazine for three to four years, and they want to sell it to me. I love doing media. But the situation now, whether its China-US relations or the media industry…In these types of moments, whether I am able to control my desires is the biggest challenge. I think it is harder than quitting sugar.
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