As Bryan Walsh recounts at Medium, Chen Tianqiao, now 45, founded online gaming company Shanda in 1999 and was a billionaire by age 30. But, following a cancer scare and issues with anxiety, he quit it all and moved to Silicon Valley where he funds research intended to help address our problems with life by probing and manipulating the brain.
At 36, he became a serious Buddhist. But his approach to neuroscience is very different from that of the Dalai Lama, who facilitates neuroscience research to better understand contemplation as a path to inner peace.
Chen’s focus is more on developing virtual reality:
Chen: In the future, perhaps I could put on a helmet and download some software, and this software can activate neurons — maybe I could create a world for you. That is possible.
Medium: Would that be a good thing, do you think?
Chen: I’m only talking about the truth. No good or bad, no value judgments. Of course, good or bad is very important. But right now I just want to tell you how powerful technology, especially neuroscience technology, could be in the future.
I think our technology has reached an extreme. We have tried our best to change the external world to satisfy our brain. If we want to do more, we have to understand our internal worlds. So, the next stage is hacking the brain, and only if you do that can you significantly raise satisfaction and happiness.
Bryan Walsh, “The Chinese Buddhist Billionaire Who Wants to Fix Your Brain” at Medium
Will AI become conscious and take over? Chen feels stymied about that one: “They already calculate much, much faster than we do, but they still don’t have any consciousness. There must be something mysterious we don’t know. It’s like a computer without the right software.”
One senses that, before Chen gets too committed to virtual reality, he might wish to talk to the Lama, who has noted, “I have always had this view about the modern education system: we pay attention to brain development, but the development of warmheartedness we take for granted.”
It’s not clear that the Lama’s peace of mind rests on the potential discoveries of neuroscience; on the contrary, he considers that the deep states of contemplation that monks in his tradition can achieve might help us understand some issues around mind and body better.
But then Chen could also talk to neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, who offers a very different approach to the mind and the brain, one that points in a quite different direction from virtual reality helmets and hacking the brain.
Note: Journalist Bryan Walsh left a position with TIME Magazine in 2016 to write a book, End Times (Hachette, 2019) because “Through all my years of reporting on disease, technology and environmental change, I became convinced that our world—even our species and our future—was in great danger. We may be approaching our end, either natural or at our own hand.”
See also: The brain is not a “meat computer” Dramatic recoveries from brain injury highlight the difference
Neurosurgeon outlines why machines can’t think: The hallmark of human thought is meaning, and the hallmark of computation is indifference to meaning.