Tan Le, who will be speaking today at Chicago Ideas Week, wants to democratize brain research to move beyond "antiquated" ideas.

Tan Le, who will be speaking today at Chicago Ideas Week, wants to democratize brain research to move beyond "antiquated" ideas.

Tan Le, the founder and CEO of Emotiv, will be one of the featured speakers at today's Tech Summit at Chicago Ideas Week. Her company produces headsets that essentially measure brainwaves and can be used for everything from gaming to aiding the physically disabled.  

Emotiv recently raised $1.6 million on Kickstarter for its latest headset called the Emotiv Insight, which Le says will be available for general release early next year. 

Not Impossible Now spoke with Le about Emotiv and what she hopes to discuss at Chicago Ideas Week. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

NIN: Explain how Emotiv's headsets work for readers who may not be familiar with your company.

Tan Le: Essentially all of the Emotiv products center around the ability to take the measurement of brain activity outside the hospitals and the labs into the real world. All of our technology is about being able to measure electrical signals that are naturally produced by the neurons interacting and firing inside your brain. It’s essentially a system that measures brainwaves.

Emotiv's headsets have applications for people who are physically disabled. Can you tell me how that’s possible?

Tan: Beyond being able to just measure your brainwaves, we also have sophisticated algorithms that decipher what those electrical fluctuations actually mean.

One of the application areas is for the brain computing interface or BCI for short. And this is the ability for you to will something to happen with your thoughts and then see that translate into an actual action that you can trigger onto your computer screen through an application or a device.

People have been able to use that to control an electric wheelchair or control a robotic arm. There are a lot of potential life-changing applications in the BCI area.

Tan Le with the new Emotiv Insight headset. (Photo courtesy of Tan Le's Facebook page)

Tan Le with the new Emotiv Insight headset. (Photo courtesy of Tan Le's Facebook page)

You’re one of the featured speakers at today's Tech Summit at Chicago Ideas Week. What ideas do you hope to discuss at the summit?

Tan: The Tech Summit is really about showcasing the latest innovations and some of the thinking behind it. What I want to share is our underlying ideas why we think democratizing brain research is so important. For the most part, when we look at any sort of research with the brain, we only really study brains when there is something wrong with them. If we’re interested in traumatic brain injury, we study brains after they’ve been injured. If we’re looking at Alzheimer’s, we study patients with the condition already expressed.

One of the issues with looking at only patient cases is that we don’t have a very complete picture of what’s going on in the brain. Most neurological impairments are developmental in nature, meaning that you don’t wake up one day and have a condition. It takes a period of time for the condition to express itself.

The idea of being able to study brains only when there’s something wrong with them is a very antiquated idea. What we need to do is really start to look at brains over a long period of time. That opens up two opportunities. The first opportunity is that it empowers everyday people to better optimize their brains and leverage the power of the brain’s ability to adapt to enhance your attention or your focus or learn better.

The other opportunity is we can potentially address a very large global burden of neurological conditions, which affect more than 2 billion people worldwide. It’s a massive problem. We’re looking at the economic burden of over $2 trillion every year. And it’s not talked about, because it’s such a difficult issue to address. But there is a real opportunity with wearable technology and the democratization of technologies like this.

What advice do you have for teenagers who are interested in careers in science and technology?

Tan: In all honesty, it’s all about passion. It’s all about finding something that you truly love to do. Not matter what you choose, the road is not going to be easy. For the most part, it’s about uncharted territory. There’s a lot of uncertainty. It’s not going to be rosy the whole time, so you need to be able to have passion for it along the way.

There are a lot of grand challenges that our generation has inherited. And there’s a responsibility and an opportunity to really devote our energy and attention and our intellect towards solving real problems rather than choosing the easy road. 

Watch Tan Le discuss the Emotiv Insight headset in the video below:

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Learn more about Tan Le and Emotiv at her company's website and Facebook page.

Top photo courtesy of Emotiv's Facebook page.