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 say, 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