China’s Former Richest Man Turns His Mind to Neuroscience
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2016-11-29 02:33:03

Humankind has made huge scientific progress in the last decade, and China’s tech giants can no longer achieve success by enjoying access to a gigantic market and emulating existing innovative firms. Competition in the science and technology industry has reached a stage where speed decides who succeeds and who fails. Indeed, the nature of the internet means game-changing innovations become ubiquitous almost as soon as they appear.

To me, the science of the human brain is the ultimate scientific frontier. It is now also one of the most fiercely competitive sectors in the tech industry. The last 10 years have even witnessed several governments entering the neuroscience arena, including the Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative, the EU’s Human Brain Project, and the China Brain Project.

Crucially, there is now an industry-wide consensus that the time is ripe for a breakthrough in neuroscience. In computing, image processing, and other brain-related technologies, we have progressed to a point where we can start applying what we have learned in real life. We may, within the next 20 years, even possess the technology to bioengineer a real-life human avatar.

The key innovation needed for this to take place is an interface between humans and machines allowing them to transmit signals to each other. For example, such an interface would need to have the ability to send scent information from a robot’s “nose” to a human’s olfactory receptors — those responsible for detecting smell — or to send visual information to the human optic nerve. Shanda Group will soon announce the establishment of a research institute aimed at developing these technologies.

The technology involved should also enable us to modify the human brain. Understanding optical input into the brain, for example, would eventually allow us to replace our eyes with video cameras with direct access to the optic nerves. Potentially, we would then be able to see just about everything, from distant craters on the moon to tiny bacteria.

If we approach neuroscience with a desire to tear down existing corporations, we will make an ordeal out of a wondrous journey of discovery.

Israeli Professor Yuval Noah Harari, a renowned historian and author of the bestseller “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” has said that the 21st century may well be the most unequal era in history. Human modification and enhancement will be achieved, but not for all, and this will create class divisions.

I believe people’s fears about artificial intelligence to be premature. The current tendency when discussing AI is to differentiate between its so-called weak and strong forms. Actually, the former is what we know as AI, whereas the latter is called AGI — or “artificial general intelligence.” Machines need to develop consciousness to achieve AGI.

As an example, there are currently several computer programs capable of beating a human at chess. These are all forms of AI. However, if a computer were to stop the game halfway through and type out a message saying, “You’re awful at this; I’m going to play against someone else,” it would have gained the self-awareness to qualify as AGI. Only at this stage could artificial intelligence pose a potential threat to humanity, and this is why I believe current technology will help and not hinder us.

There are huge prospects for the future of neurology. For this reason, Shanda Group is investing $1 billion into establishing a neuroscience program to support research projects in China. There are many Chinese neurologists around the world conducting fantastic research. They are excited by China as a rapidly developing market, and they have abundant faith in China’s research capabilities and resources. But they are reluctant to move their families back to China and carry on their research here out of concerns for their children’s education and for environmental pollution. They are also equally keen to maintain close ties with the United States, which is the world leader in their field.

Realizing this, Shanda and several Chinese universities have put forward a solution. Their proposal is to seek out the top Chinese neuroscientists worldwide and have them conduct their research at a lab, perhaps in Silicon Valley or Boston, built specifically with neuroscience in mind. They would then make regular trips back home to China to give lectures and classes, and the findings of their research, along with any patents, would belong to the university with which they were affiliated. Indeed, this initiative is already in the process of being rolled out.

I will feel an immense sense of accomplishment if Shanda Group can contribute to unlocking the secrets of the human mind and am eager for us to play a leading role by investing in academic institutions and commercial enterprises. We already make frequent charitable donations to universities and have established a scheme to provide long-term funding for Chinese postdoctoral researchers and assistant professors in the field of neurology. The scheme currently supports several hundred researchers around the globe. 

One of our most interesting commercial partners is ElMindA, an Israeli firm that assesses cognition quantitatively by monitoring and analyzing brain activity. For example, if a doctor asks you how much something hurts, you are basically limited to saying it hurts “a lot,” “a little,” “sort of,” and so on. Even if you try to rate the degree of pain from 1 to 10, the best you can give is a rough estimate. Nobody truly knows how to quantify the sensation of pain in their mind. ElMindA is the only firm on the planet with approval from the American Food and Drug Administration that is exploring the brain from the perspective of quantifying sentience and cognition.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are also key to the future of neuroscience. VR and AR equipment is currently very heavy, and only offers a restricted field of view to the user. If the firms we have invested in can successfully miniaturize this technology, the implications of their research would be revolutionary.

Of course, as a commercial enterprise, we are not excluding the possibility that a genuine business opportunity might emerge from our outside interests. If we discover a way to write memories directly into the brain, for example, it would transform the world of education. If we can create a VR or AR universe on the scale of “The Matrix,” the entertainment industry as we know it would cease to exist. Neuroscience is so seductive partially because it has the potential to turn a firm into the next Google — or perhaps something even larger. Yet if we approach neuroscience with a desire to tear down existing corporations, we will make an ordeal out of a wondrous journey of discovery. 

After becoming the richest person in China at 30 years old, is there any value in striving to achieve this ambition all over again at age 40 or 60? As far as I’m concerned, there is none whatsoever. What is more valuable is the potential variety of human experience, all of which is a product of the brain. Naturally, this includes both happiness and pain; right now, I would prefer to set my brain to “happiness mode,” and enjoy contemplating the future of neuroscience.

(Header image: Chen Tianqiao at Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference, March 4, 2016. Tian He/VCG)