Tan Le: Making miracles with her mind

Tan Le is the founder of brain research company Emotiv, whose technology helped a quadriplegic man drive a Formula One car using only his thoughts. She spoke to “The Brave Ones” about fleeing Vietnam as a four-year-old, quitting a law degree for neuroscience, and why being an outsider is the secret to her success.
01
Escape from Vietnam

When Tan Le was a child, she took a boat trip that would set the tone for the rest of her life. In 1981, aged just four years old, her mother Mai Ho carried her and her sister Min to a secret hiding place in Ho Chi Minh City, in their home country of Vietnam. It was midnight and the family had to keep quiet through the early hours.

“At about four o’clock (in the morning), a man come and he said that we can start to go one by one. And so I (carried) Min and Le and we got onto a small boat … At the time, when the sea (was) very rough, they were scared and they (held) onto me very tight and I keep telling them that we will be okay,” Ho told CNBC’s “The Brave Ones.”

“It was our family decision to take the children to a safer place, a place where they (could) actually appreciate the real freedom and change and (have the) opportunity to start a life again.”
Mai Ho, Tan Le’s mother

The family traveled with more than 150 others on the South China Sea, escaping a southern Vietnam that had become inhospitable when Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) fell to troops from the north, marking the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Five nights after they were huddled onto the boat, and after running out of food and water, they were rescued by a British oil tanker, which took them to Malaysia where they spent three months in a refugee camp.

“It was our family decision to take the children to a safer place, a place where they (could) actually appreciate the real freedom and change and (have the) opportunity to start a life again,” Ho said. In case the family was arrested, Le’s father stayed behind with the agreement that he would get the family released if they ended up in jail.

Eventually, they found their way to Australia, where Le went to school in a Melbourne suburb. “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. But to pursue opportunities that we would never have imagined had we not taken that leap,” she told “The Brave Ones.”

“Never really fully fitting in means that you… don’t really develop a strong sense of a comfort zone.”
Tan Le

But settling in to Australian life was difficult. “It’s quite challenging growing up in a place where you look different than anybody else. You have a totally different history. You eat totally different food, you go home and speak a totally different language,” she said.

“Of course, you get teased, you eat different food at lunchtime. You go into the schoolyard and all the kids have their own food which is (a) Vegemite sandwich and I would have some food that my mum made and I was terrified of opening it up because Asian food has a smell.”

Le’s mother worked multiple jobs to put Le and her sister through school, and was very keen for the family to continue to speak Vietnamese at home, to make sure they didn’t forget their heritage.

“I completely understand her perspective: after taking these two precious children through this ordeal, (my mother felt) I have them finally in a place where they can have a new life, they are prized like my prized possession, they are everything to me. I sacrificed everything — I left my husband behind; I left my family, my roots, my heritage behind in order to have this new life, for these two children.”

But the impact of being an outsider gave Le strength. “Never really fully fitting in means that you… don’t really develop a strong sense of a comfort zone and so you feel quite comfortable pushing outside your comfort zone in order to find new opportunities, and so I think that has been a very powerful and enriching part of my life — even though it was extremely difficult when I lived through it,” she said.

 
02
Le's reinvention

From a young age, Le wanted to be able to move objects with her mind. “When she was young she always dreamed the she can move things by just thinking about it. At that time she was just 8 or 9,” Ho told “The Brave Ones.”

“I have always been a nerd, so as a child I was very curious, but I was very studious. But my mum, she impressed upon me the importance of education. So schooling was very important to me... And I would say I was (a) goody two shoes,” Le said.

“I was always friendly but I wasn’t particularly, you know, the one that people would have noticed or anything like that. I was kind of quiet and studious.”

At 16, she finished high school and decided on a career in law — against her mother’s wishes. “My mother was adamant that I should do medicine, and I went into med school and checked it out, and they had all these jars of dead pieces of the human body and I thought, you know what, I’m not really keen on the sight of blood,” she said.

Le also volunteered in her community, chairing an organization that helped immigrants navigate the Australian legal system and find vocational training and work. “I felt that my highest level of contribution would be to understand the legal framework and … that would allow (me) to have a better influence in the future and I thought that was my best way of contributing.”

“Technological advancement is going to drive the future and… I wanted to be in the trenches and creating new stuff.”
Tan Le

Then in 1998, aged 20, Le won the “Young Australian of the Year” prize for her community work, which widened her horizons and got her thinking about what she wanted to become. “I’ve always found it important to find your highest level of contribution in life. And everyone is different — what you’re given is different, the raw materials you’ve got to work with (are) different and so you have to find that secret set of ingredients that constitute who you are and then find what that translates to.”

While studying law at Melbourne’s Monash University was “intellectually very stimulating and very rewarding,” it wasn’t enough for Le.

“Most people who I met were deeply passionate about what they were doing, and they were motivated by exploring questions of science or business opportunities or a deep love for music or, you know, (had) incredible discipline in sports in order to achieve great success in their field of endeavor.”

“And I saw many, many more examples of what that could look like, rather than my mum’s idolized version of success being doctor or lawyer… Once that happened, I couldn’t go back to the law and feel that I could stay on that same trajectory and not feel as if I was missing out on my true calling.”

She also read two books that inspired her: David A. Kaplan’s “The Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams,” covering the history of Silicon Valley, and “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,” by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras.

“Those books really influenced me and I realized that when I was 16 and I looked at the future, I didn’t really look broadly enough to see the things that were going to shape our society and shape our world.”

“I realized that I lived in a generation where technological advancement is going to drive the future and the future is going to be owned by those who create it. And I wanted to be a part of that creation. I didn’t want to be on the sidelines facilitating that process. I wanted to be in the trenches and creating new stuff,” she said.

 
03
Mind control

Le went from being an unnoticed high school student to founding a company at the cutting-edge of technology.

After a stint at Australian law firm Freehills, she experimented with tech ideas. The first was an online children’s tutoring company, and the next was a business that made barcode scanners. “I was always attracted to hardware. You know, even as a little girl I loved cars, I never loved dolls, I just loved little cars and robots,” she said.

The scanner hardware ended up becoming a software application that helped big companies communicate with customers via text message, a first during the early 2000s. Le and co-founder Nam Do charged clients five Australian cents (3.7 cents) per message and the tech snowballed: they were eventually handling 150 million messages a month.

In 2003, aged 26, she sold the company. “After I sold my first business … I didn’t want to create a widget or another app … I wanted to explore questions of science and venture into a field that would stop me having to pivot every five or so years,” she said.

“Our idea over dinner was: how can we evolve the next generation of human computer interaction so it becomes far smarter, so that it actually understands not just what you tell it to do, but also how you're feeling, how you're responding to things, so AI becomes more intelligent?”
Tan Le

“I wanted to purposely find something that I could really devote my life to that would be a lifelong endeavor, that wouldn’t require me to reinvent myself, it would be a field that would have vast possibility and would allow me to reinvent the way things are done.”

Allan Snyder, a renowned scientist whom Le and Do met on the speaking circuit, helped provide the answer. Over a late-night dinner they got talking about how computers might be able to understand human emotions. “Our idea over dinner was: how can we evolve the next generation of human computer interaction so it becomes far smarter, so that it actually understands not just what you tell it to do, but also how you're feeling, how you're responding to things, so AI becomes more intelligent?” Le told tech website Wired in 2010.

Le then launched Emotiv and set about creating an algorithm that could identify emotions from brain data. , and they set about creating an algorithm that could identify emotions from brain data. But human brains are complex, made up of more than 100,000 miles of neurons. Chemical reactions between them emit electrical impulses, which can be measured, but the brain surface is highly folded, as Le explained in a 2010 TED talk.

“Each individual's cortex is folded differently, very much like a fingerprint. So even though a signal may come from the same functional part of the brain, by the time the structure has been folded, its physical location is very different between individuals, even identical twins. There is no longer any consistency in the surface signals,” she said. Emotiv’s breakthrough was to create an algorithm that “unfolds” the brain’s cortex so the electrical impulses can be mapped.

Box Out

The Epoc headset was their first consumer product, a wireless, portable EEG (electroencephalogram) device that, instead of the large machines found in hospitals that cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, would ‘read’ a user’s emotions and let them move objects shown on a computer screen, as Le demonstrated in her TED talk. It could also let people fly a toy helicopter, simply by thinking “lift,” close curtains, play games, move a robotic limb and even control an electric wheelchair by mapping facial expressions to movement commands. A few months after launch, the company had 10,000 customers, including Boeing.

“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,” Le said.

Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of Emotiv’s technology was when Rodrigo Hubner Mendes, a quadriplegic man, used it to drive a Formula One car using only his thoughts. Mendes had been shot in the neck while driving through Sao Paulo, Brazil, aged 18, in a random attack that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Twenty-seven years later, in 2017, he sat in a car for the first time since the attack.

While sitting in the vehicle, 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."

Le and Mendes met at a Young Global Leaders dinner, part of the World Economic Forum, where coincidentally they were sitting opposite each other. Mendes had already used Emotiv technology to drive, but Le hadn’t been aware of what he had done.

For Le, the possibilities are endless. “What kind of society we can build in the future, how we can make it more inclusive, how we can involve others and how (can) we humans overcome (the) limits we have taken for granted? It’s very exciting when you see that happen.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Tan Le was the sole founder of the company Emotiv.

 
Credits
Writer: Lucy Handley
Design and code: Bryn Bache
Editor: Matt Clinch
Executive Producer, The Brave Ones: Betsy Alexander
Producers, The Brave Ones: Jamie Corsi and Kelly Lin
Images: CNBC, Getty Images
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