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This refugee-turned-CEO makes technology that lets you control a car with your mind

  • Tan Le fled Vietnam aged four with her mother in search of a better life
  • She founded brain research company Emotiv in 2011
  • Emotiv provided the technology for a quadriplegic man to drive a Formula One car using his mind
    Tan Le is founder and CEO of brain research company Emotiv
    CNBC
    Tan Le is founder and CEO of brain research company Emotiv

    When Tan Le was four years old, she, her mother, grandmother and sister fled from their native Vietnam in search of a better life in Australia.

    They spent five days crossing the South China Sea by boat with more than 150 others, were rescued by a British oil tanker and then lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia for three months.

    Eventually, they reached Australia. "It was a really incredible feeling because Australia gave us so much more. It was really expansive, not just in terms of geographic space, but also the room to think, to expand our horizons, to start again," Le told CNBC's "The Brave Ones."

    Now 41, Le is the successful chief executive and founder of Emotiv, a brain research company that has developed technology that lets people do things such as control a car using their mind. After a degree at Melbourne's Monash University and stints as a lawyer and software entrepreneur, she founded the company in 2011.

    "The brain is made up of billions of neurons. When the neurons interact with each other, the chemical reaction emits an electrical impulse… We measure those electrical impulses using a headset that you put on your head, it's totally noninvasive," she said.

    "And then we use machine-learning to measure those impulses and we translate those patterns into commands or into meaning… so turning on the lights, with your mind, control a robot or drive a car."

    In 2017, Rodrigo Hubner Mendes, a quadriplegic man, used technology from Emotiv to drive a Formula One car, using an on-board computer that translated his thoughts into commands in the vehicle.

    While sitting in the car, Mendes, who is the founder of non-profit organization the Rodrigo Mendes Institute, explained that the team used a computer device to map the electricity of the brain, meaning that thoughts or brain patterns could be associated with different commands.

    "To accelerate, I thought that I was celebrating a soccer goal, which is the vision. To turn right, I thought that I was eating a delicious food, so tasting. And to turn left, I thought that I was holding a bicycle handle bar, which is touching," he told "The Brave Ones."

    Along with running Emotiv, Le is a member of the World Economic Forum (WEF) global future council on neurotechnologies and brain sciences. "When you look into the future, I can't possibly imagine a world where we are not directly interfacing with this very powerful machine that each one of us has inside our heads," she said.

    "The Brave Ones: Tan Le" airs tonight on CNBC at 22.00 BST / 23.00 CET.