The Chinese Buddhist Billionaire Who Wants to Fix Your Brain
China’s first internet titan is throwing billions at the mysteries of our gray matter
Chen Tianqiao could easily be mistaken for someone enjoying retirement. It’s not just his attire: a short-sleeved white shirt with a floral pattern down the middle, relaxed blue trousers, a pair of camo sneakers. Chen, who founded the online gaming company Shanda in 1999 and piloted it to an IPO in 2004, could enjoy an early retirement if he wanted. As China’s first true internet tycoon, he was a billionaire by age 30. And then he disappeared.
In 2010, Chen moved to Singapore with his family and took Shanda private while selling off what shares he still owned in its subsidiary companies. He wouldn’t have been the first dotcom billionaire to get out of the game young and spend the rest of his life enjoying his money. But that’s not why Chen stepped away from the business world. In the mid-2000s, when Shanda was at its peak, he began suffering intense, debilitating anxiety attacks that were compounded by a cancer scare. “I remember some nights, I wake up, and my heart is going boom, boom, boom,” Chen says. “I realized something terrible was happening to me.” The only way to survive was to leave the company he had created.
After spending several years in Singapore researching his next act, Chen decided on philanthropy with a very specific focus: the brain. Chen has set aside $1 billion to fund research on neuroscience, including $115 million to create the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech). Altogether it’s one of the biggest gifts ever devoted to foundational scientific research, and Chen and his wife have since moved to Silicon Valley to oversee their giving.
Chen, now 45, wants to help people who suffer as he once did. “When we decided to choose a second chapter and give our money, we focused on how to relieve this pain and suffering,” he says. But Chen is also fascinated by the scientific mysteries that could be unlocked by better understanding the brain — as well as the business opportunities that could arise as a result. (His investment firm has backed dozens of advanced technology ventures, with a particular interest in virtual reality.) Over the course of a two-hour conversation alongside Chrissy in their new house on New York’s Upper East Side, Chen touched on the connection between his Buddhist faith and the study of the brain, the need for technology to solve the problems it has created, and why he isn’t worried about the robot uprising.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Medium: With Shanda, you experienced an incredible level of success very rapidly. But you’ve also spoken about the intense stress you began to feel as you were guiding the business. At what point did it become debilitating?
Chen Tianqiao: I founded my business in 1999, and we spent maybe three years 100 percent focused on the business. The rest of the time, I’m always fighting with pressure and stress. Even in 2008, when our share price reached a historical peak, and in 2009, when we raised $1.2 billion to spin off the game business [Shanda Games Ltd]. It’s good, but I think something must have been accumulating in my heart. Of course, I always have Chrissy with me. That was a very good help. But I also have 10,000 employees who are counting on me.
And I still remember some nights, one in the morning, and one of my colleagues would dial the wrong number and call me. And boom, I wake up, and my heart is going boom, boom, boom, boom. And one time in a plane, suddenly I feel like I’m having a heart attack. But it is not a heart attack. It’s a panic attack. So I realized something terrible was happening to me.
In 2010, after the panic attack and even cancer is diagnosed, we decided to move to a new environment. It was a critical decision, and I think my whole life started to change then.
Was that a difficult decision to make—to step away from this company you built?
Of course, of course. After I moved to Singapore, it took us at least two to three years. I would look back to China and see these competitors, whom I saw as second-tier players. They were gradually coming and taking our market share. And you want to go back, even though you know you should not go back. That is a struggle. But I keep talking to Chrissy, and Chrissy always encourages me. And she said most people can only climb one mountain, but maybe you can climb the second or the third. And I can choose a new chapter in my life.
Many people are addicted to their past successes. They think that’s all they’ll have. So I always talk to entrepreneurs in my generation and tell them, “Your life is not only this company. Please look up and you can see many, many interesting things.” But I can see many of them still struggling, because of the competition, because of different pressures. They have a very stressful life.
You’re a Buddhist now. Was that part of the recalibration you made?
Frankly speaking, I didn’t really believe in religion very much before this. Chrissy would talk to some Buddhist masters, and I always said, “Don’t waste your time.” But when I was 36, and I was diagnosed, I realized that what the Buddha said is really right. I’m rich; I have everything I want, including a very happy family. So why did I always feel unhappy? Why did I have panic attacks? Why was I always not satisfied?
The Buddha said we have to seek the answer internally. The fact is that everybody in life is suffering. This is the fundamental principle of the Buddha’s teaching: that life is suffering. Many people don’t trust that. But life is suffering, because even with happiness, even with pleasure, even with your nice house, someday you will lose it. Ultimately, you have to die. Ultimately, you have to experience this pain. Even in the moment when you are happy. So I said, “It’s right.”
And when we decided to choose a second chapter and give our money, we focused on how to relieve this pain and suffering.
When we chose this, some people said, “No, no, no! Why do you choose pain? Pain is a symptom. You should cure the disease, because without the disease, there is no pain.” And I told them, “No, disease is also a symptom.” Disease is a symptom of death. Disease is the path to death. And death is the only disease of our life. And we have to admit that death is not something we can cure. Even though in Silicon Valley, they’re bold enough to think they can.
I was going to ask about that.
Even though I may not agree with them, I respect them, and I would like to give money to support them. But we have to admit that in the foreseeable future, death is not curable. And when you die, no matter of what kind of disease, that last period is full of suffering. The fear, the pain, all the unknown. So I think that if you can cure the suffering of life, this is the best way to cure death. If death has no suffering, it’s just like sleep, right? And the way to cure it is to learn to accept it.
So finally, we believe that death and the pain should be our future focus. And then we go to meet many scientists—almost 300 scientists so far.
And did you know that the scientific focus was going to be on neuroscience? Was that always clear?
No, I will tell you. Neuroscience is a bottleneck to understanding our brain. But this is not the only part. I have always told people that although our focus is on neuroscience, at the end of the day, my vision of the Chen Institute is the vertical integration of difference disciplines related to the brain and the mind. So neuroscience, but also psychiatry, psychology, sociology, and philosophy. Divinity school, too. I want to combine all these different disciplines together, but so far I see the bottlenecks in neuroscience, because we are trying to solve this problem through a scientific way.
We have a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach. We ask ourselves for thousands of years: Who are we? Why do we suffer? What is real happiness? What is consciousness? I think the top-down approach is from religion, philosophy, sociology, and all those things. Even thousands of years ago, philosophers could ask themselves these questions. No one can stop you from thinking this. But the top-down approach faces some problems because modern people always say, “Show me.”
Right. They want proof and data.
Right. “Show me the facts.” Neuroscience is the discipline that can do that. Let’s take psychiatry, for example. So far, a psychiatry diagnosis still relies mostly on an interview. It’s still mostly subjective. I talk to psychiatry department deans and ask, “When can you install imaging? When you can install some sort of biomarker to detect depression?” I think I have some mental disorders, and I truly believe there must be something wrong, some chemical or something in my brain. For example, when I take a plane, I’m a very rational guy and I know it’s the safest kind of transportation, but I’m still afraid. But after I take a pill, suddenly it’s gone. That shows so-called fear, psychiatric depression, you can detect it, through a scientific way. But it’s as if psychiatry just stopped there.
Neuroscience is a bottleneck to understanding our brain.
I’m very disappointed in this. Cancer has many different ways we can detect it. But so far the brain and the mind, it’s still the same as 50 years ago. So I think this is the right time for us to do something.
Why the philanthropic approach? One billion dollars is a lot of money. Why choose that route rather than investing?
We have studied different ways of improving some of the philanthropic investments, but I think for brain and the mind, we have to choose a nonprofit way because we lack an understanding of some of the fundamental aspects of the brain. This is a bottleneck. And all this research is still in the university or the institute, which is a nonprofit organization. For example, Elon Musk said he wants to embed chips in the brain [through his startup Neuralink]. And we talked to neuroscientists at CalTech, and they said no way, that’s 50 years away.
I think we view our approach as humble. We want to give scientists fundamental support, and we want to solve fundamental questions. We are not satisfied just with making money.
Is there work being done at the Chen Institute that particularly excites you?
Yeah. For example, at the Brain-Machine Interface Center, Richard Andersen can simulate the feeling of touch and sense through manipulating the brain of a paralyzed patient. The patient, below a part, he may have no feeling. But Richard stimulates something, and then the patient can say, “Oh, someone is tickling me.”
That’s actually proving one of my hypotheses that the world is actually only perception.
The world is only perception?
That is another philosophical question. Is the world real or virtual? I truly believe it’s virtual. Because if our eyes, our naked eyes, can have the same function of a microscope, of course a microscope is more real than our naked eyes, right? When I see you, it should be just atoms in cells here and there, and I could see in the air how many molecules of H2O, how many oxygen atoms here and there floating around. That is real. But what I see is what our naked eye edits. That’s perception.
Another scientist, our director David Anderson, he can manipulate the emotions of a mouse. When he turns on one button, the mouse is suddenly very peaceful. When he turns on another, the mouse suddenly fights. All the aggression is controlled by a group of neurons. So this is another of my hypotheses—that we are chemical robots.
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.
Would that be a good thing, do you think?
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
Where do you see that going? In 20 years’ time, how will we as human beings be different as this technology evolves?
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.
People talk about the fourth industrial revolution, and many people have said that this will be artificial intelligence. But I think this is too narrow. A.I. is only part of it. I think it should be cognition science. Without understanding our own intelligence, you cannot have artificial intelligence—not at a very high level. And current artificial intelligence, I don’t think it’s a real intelligence.
When you look at A.I., it seems that the current method is based around gathering and mining as much data as we can. But that’s not how human cognition works, and it seems like they’ve moved away from trying to pattern A.I. off the human brain. Is that a mistake, to remove the human from this sort of work?
Artificial intelligence has a lot of successes, like machine learning and deep learning, and nobody denies this, but we shouldn’t be satisfied by this. I always use the example of my two-year-old son. He can always recognize an uncle or an auntie on the street. He will never call it wrong. But a computer has to be trained millions of times to know “This is a kitty, this is a cookie.”
Right now we teach machines only one value statement: efficiency. The machine optimizes the efficient. The machine always knows how to quickly find the best way. But if the machine ruled the world, it must say, “Kill all the old men and sick people because of their weight on resources,” right? So we have to teach the machines fairness and compassion. But how do we do that when we don’t know how to define them?
Going back to psychiatry, we base our judgments on subjective interviews, but how do we pass this experience onto a machine?
There are people who worry that A.I. is going to be an existential risk. Are you afraid the robots are going to take over?
I think there are two types of threat. One is that it takes jobs from people. But I don’t think this is a big threat. Technology will generate new jobs for people. There may be some suffering, they may need time to be educated or trained, but for humans, we’ll adjust.
The second worry is that they could develop consciousness and surpass us. This is theoretically possible. 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.
Some people say machines have machine rights just like human rights. They have the right to get smarter. We should not just try to put our value system through the machine. Maybe one day the machines will become self-aware and they should have their own rights. I think, yes, maybe. But that will be a new species. Why would we bother to create a new species? We have so many humans still suffering and starving and so many species on earth still facing extinction. Why bother creating something new? I think the current debate around this is very messy.
You’re also involved in venture capital investing around the brain and neuroscience. Within those areas, where do you see growth? Is it going to be pharmaceutical? Machine-brain connections?
As I said, this is about fundamental research. This is curiosity-driven. We’re seeking the truth. But with fundamental research discovery, I think it can meet three demands for all of humanity. The first we call brain treatment—to deal with the mental disorders that are growing so rapidly—which I think will be the big challenge in the future. Not only mental disorders but also neurodegenerative disease. We are getting older and older, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, all of these types of things definitely someday will get you.
Depression has become the number one disease. I think we can be very helpful for this. We truly believe fundamental research will contribute a lot to this over the next 10 to 20 years.
[T]he next stage is hacking the brain, and only if you do that can you significantly raise satisfaction and happiness.
The second issue we call brain development. I think if we really want to benefit humanity, we have to understand ourselves, and then we can give purpose to the world, to the car, to the house, to everything, so the world can read your mind to know what you want, and you let the world satisfy you. To hack yourself and change your body through genetic editing. I think these are killer applications for the future.
The third one is really our ultimate vision. We try to answer these big types of questions, such as what is consciousness? Who are we? And what is real and what is virtual? This may seems too academic a discussion, but it really matters to me and, I think, to many people. For thousands of years, these have been the ultimate questions the whole of humanity has been asking. And I think maybe we are lucky that our generation may find that truth.
You were talking about depression. We’ve seen that suicide rates are increasing. Why do you think that is?
I think it is because of technology. I think technology developed too rapidly, and many people cannot accept it.
When you say technology, what do you mean?
You have a phone in your hand that can connect you to anyone. You can get a thing done in one minute that 10 or 20 years ago would have taken you a month. This is the pace we live at now. But I believe people have a limitation on their capacity for connection. You don’t know how to handle these relationships. The speed of information. There’s so much information flooding into your brain, and your brain has to judge yes or no, because more and more people, with the help of a blast from technology, they also have a voice. There are so many different views flooding in your brain, and you have to judge what you like, what you want.
I say you run too fast. I cannot chase you. I just want you to stop. I want to stop you, right? This is technology. But we cannot just stop.
You can’t just take away technology.
Yeah, you cannot do that. So we have to use technology to solve the problems that technology generated. That’s why cognitive science, studying the brain, is so important. People say, “Oh, technology is such that one crazy guy can press the nuclear button and the world just disappears.” They say, “This is technology.” But we want to know why does the guy press that button?
If technology is here to stay, then it seems like we have to fix our brains to adjust to technology.
I don’t know how to solve this problem. But I think the more we understand our brains, the better we’ll be able to mitigate these mental disorders.
Do you think in the future we’ll go beyond trying to cure clear mental disorders and depression and move toward trying to actively shape our brains to make ourselves more intelligent, to have more willpower? Is that the direction humanity is going?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say what is normal and what is abnormal. You said, ah, maybe someday, if our technology is good enough, then we adjust everybody’s brain to a normal condition if they are abnormal. But the question is: What is normal? Right? Even now, all the so-called normal people, they hold many different views on the same thing.
But with more understanding of our brain, at least we can reduce the hurt or harm to society through the actions that everyone can agree is wrong. Suicide or terrorism, for example, those types of things we can reduce. But in a normal society, it’s difficult for us to all improve, because we have to keep our flexibility and the diversity of our brain.
In South Korea, for example, they’re very good at plastic surgery. So all the beautiful women look the same! Is that what we want? It’s a value judgment, and to my point of view, it would be better to keep diversity.
But with more understanding of our brain, at least we can reduce the hurt or harm to society through the actions that everyone can agree is wrong.
You mentioned virtual reality as something you’re interested in. As someone who made their fortune in digital entertainment, how do you see that shaping the future?
I’ve always said that the ultimate version of VR is dreaming. Our brain is powerful enough to create a virtual reality that can mimic the sound and feel of reality. That’s amazing.
So I think, why do we have to rely on a Google helmet? We know so little about our brain. What if we could manipulate our brain and just continue our dream? When I wake up from a good dream, I’m always so disappointed. What if I could continue my dream in the night? If you can continue the dream, that would be a huge industry. I’ve always said that would be the terminator of the entertainment industry.
I’ve asked scientists, including at my institute, if they could mimic sensation. Currently, you can only mimic sound and visuals. If you can feel something, then the brain could mimic everything. So I think the ultimate version of VR should come from our brain itself. It’s powerful enough.
We’ve already talked about the impact technology has had on our happiness. Is there a risk that if we could do that with VR, it would make that even worse?
I think it’s only enhancing the trends; it will not change a lot. For example, when I was young, and after the opening and reform of China, a lot of movies were introduced from Hong Kong and America. It opened up a new world. Now, I’m a good boy. The only time my mother scolded me was when I tried to find some time to watch a movie at my friend’s home. She said, “Why would you see these things? They’ll make you addicted, they’ll make you do blah, blah, blah. TV series, movies, they’ll introduce you to bad things. You won’t learn. You won’t go to work.” Then, in my generation, everybody did the same thing. My users’ parents, when I was at Shanda, every day they just criticized me and said our product was addictive.
I think if [the technology] is much more vivid, the trend will be enhanced. You will always find that some people are addicted to it. It’s like a drug. The drug is so powerful, it can take control of your brain and let you feel happy. But if it has the same effect as a drug, our government already has some regulations. I think going forward, even if VR can generate more addictive things, we can take drug regulation as a benchmark. I think it can be regulated.
Ultimately, do you feel optimistic about the direction we’re going with technology and the brain? Do you think we’ll be able to make ourselves fitter and happier?
I cannot find an answer to this. That’s why I’m a little pessimistic. I think there are so many problems that are generated by technology. What I can do is try to use scientific ways to mitigate the possible consequence of that technology. But if we don’t do that, it could lead to very bad consequences.
When I gave money to an American university [CalTech], the Chinese media criticized me. But I think the current debate or current conflict is not between the people of one country and the people of another. This is our humanity.